Visiting from Mexico at 18, Claudia Rodriguez only meant to stay in California for one summer. Instead, without means to return, she remained in America, went to college, and became a lawyer.
The California State University, Dominguez Hills alumna (Class of ’98, B.S., business administration; ’00, M.A., behavioral science, negotiation and conflict management), said it was the heavy load of required units and rigorous coursework at the university that helped prepare her for law school.
“The bachelor’s got me into the critical thinking phase and the master’s degree helped me with the writing,” she recalled.
Rodriguez, who transferred from Los Angeles Harbor College with an associate’s degree in liberal arts, said CSU Dominguez Hills offered other benefits, too.
“I was looking into a smaller campus, because L.A. Harbor is small. I chose Dominguez because it’s a small campus,” she said. “I could talk to the professors, not just to [teacher’s assistants]. I could have that access that I was seeking. I got a lot of help from the professors.”
The support she received went beyond the classroom. In particular, she recalled that Maria Rosa García-Acevedo, a former professor of political science at CSU Dominguez Hills, was a source of encouragement when she doubted her ability to tackle law school.
“She’s the second person besides my husband who really pushed me,” Rodriguez said.
It wasn’t just Rodriguez’s confidence that made her dream of going to law school seem out of reach, it was also the looming cost. Once again, García-Acevedo was there to help put things into perspective, calming her fears about going into debt over student loans.
“At that time I would have to spend about $100,000 for law school, which was almost the same as buying a house,” Rodriguez said. “But Maria Rosa would tell me… an education will always be there.’”
Once in law school, with considerably more reading and, as a shy person having to participate in classes, Rodriguez found her first year to be overwhelming.
“I wanted to quit. But my husband and Maria Rosa were always there for me,” Rodriguez said.
With their support, and self-determination, Rodriguez went on to earn a Juris Doctor in law from Whittier Law School in 2005. Of her accomplishment, she said, “Nobody does anything alone. There’s always people who help you.”
The San Pedro resident has been an attorney since being admitted to the California Bar in 2006. She specializes in immigration, criminal, and bankruptcy law, and opened a private practice law office in Los Angeles in 2010 and another in Long Beach in 2011. She also returned to her alma mater in 2012 to teach criminal justice through the College of Business Administration and Public Policy.
However, none of this would have happened if not for a bit of misfortune as well as good fortune.
After graduating from high school in 1987 in Mexico City, Rodriguez packed her bags and with a visitor’s visa came for a short stay with an aunt and uncle in Long Beach. She had plans to learn some every-day American vernacular and return to her hometown to a job teaching English at a private institute for languages. However, within weeks of arriving in southern California, her family experienced some financial hardships in Mexico and was unable to pay for her return.
“I started working in a factory. I was making $3.75 an hour. That was the minimum wage at that time,” said Rodriguez. In addition to landing the job making electrical switches, she took a job at McDonald’s in the evenings to support herself and send money to her family in Mexico.
Her plans to return to Mexico would once again be thwarted, but this time for a happy reason. She met her future husband, José Luis Luna. They fell in love and married in 1988, and now have a daughter together.
Rodriguez and Luna hope her story provides a good example for their 4-year-old daughter. It turns out that Rodriguez is also a good role model for her husband. When she was about to enter law school, Luna followed suit and started his own academic journey. He earned an associate’s degree in liberal arts from Los Angeles Harbor College, transferred to CSU Dominguez Hills, and earned a bachelor’s in Chicano/a studies with a minor in sociology in 2004, and a master’s in public administration in 2007. Now he wants to go to law school.
“My number one inspiration is my wife,” Luna said.
Rodriguez recalled, “He always wanted a Ph.D., but I told him, ‘If you go to law school, I can tutor you.’”
In American vernacular, she’ll teach him the ropes.