Carla Rodriguez, 21, is a junior pursuing a double major in health sciences/pre-med and psychology at Husson University in Bangor. She previously faced chronic poverty and unstable housing while growing up in Southbridge, Massachusetts. Credit: Courtesy of Kevin Bennett / BDN

When Carla Rodriguez was growing up in Southbridge, Massachusetts, she dreamed of working in the medical field, but faced chronic poverty and unstable housing. She never had a pillow to sleep on at night, and consistent meals were hard to come by.

Today, Rodriguez, 21, is a junior pursuing a double major in health sciences/pre-med and psychology at Husson University in Bangor. She said she chose to attend Husson because of its affordable tuition. Several scholarships, grants and financial aid have also made her college dream possible.

When Rodriguez’s parents divorced when she was 9, she initially lived with her mother, but moved in with her father during high school after her mother kicked her out. Two years later, however, her father left to care for Rodriguez’s ailing grandfather in the Dominican Republic and she was left to fend for herself as a teenager with no financial support.

Rodriguez worked part-time as a certified nursing assistant while attending high school to contribute as much of the family’s monthly apartment expenses as she could, believing her father was also sending payments.

At the time, Rodriguez’s cupboards and refrigerator were often empty, save for a few condiments, and she rarely had a filling meal. Her father had stocked up on food before he left for the Dominican Republic, but he stayed longer than he had planned, leaving Rodriguez without enough food.

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“At one point, I was eating relish out of the bottle for a meal,” she said.

One day in October of her senior year, she came home from school and found an eviction notice on her door.

“I found out that the only amount of money I paid in rent was the only money the landlord had received for that entire year,” she said. “The first thing I did was call my friend, who I had been best friends with since freshman year, and his mom always treated me like a daughter.”

Within minutes, her friend and his mother, Melissa Richardson, had a room ready for Rodriguez in their home. She was welcomed into the family and began calling her friend’s mother “Mama Rich.” In her new home, she was stunned by simple things most people take for granted, like pillows and food always being in the refrigerator and cupboard.

“For the longest time, I had a mattress and two blankets, but I never had a pillow, so I’d use a stuffed animal as a pillow,” Rodriguez said. “When I moved into the room Mama Rich set up for me, it had new blankets, sheets — which I never had — and pillows. It meant the world to me because I never knew I was missing out on something as powerful as a pillow.”

In addition to giving her food and a place to sleep, Mama Rich taught Rodriguez how to file her taxes, complete college applications and apply for financial aid and scholarships to help make her dreams a reality.

“I always knew I wanted to go to college and become a doctor, I just didn’t know how to get there,” Rodriguez said. “Neither of my parents finished high school, so I didn’t know what a GPA was until I applied to colleges.”

While Rodriguez now works part-time in the university’s library and as a behavioral health professional in addition to taking classes, she said the combination of scholarships, grants and financial aid she’s able to receive are what makes it possible for her to receive an education.

After she completes her education, Rodriguez said she’d like to become a cardio or trauma surgeon.

“I’ve worked very hard to learn from my parents’ mistakes,” she said. “I have my own apartment and work as much as I go to school. I’ve learned to put in that time and effort so I don’t ever have to be where I was again.”

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...