For Mei-Ling Rodriguez, nothing matters more than ensuring everyone gets an equal opportunity. In her role as diversity and compliance manager for global infrastructure construction management and consulting firm AECOM, the University of Arizona Global Campus (UAGC) student is responsible for ensuring diversity among the vendors on the company’s projects.

“I make sure that small businesses, women, or minority-owned businesses get contracting opportunities and that they’re paid on time,” Mei-Ling explains. “For instance, our current project is a $4 billion project, and I make sure 20 percent of that $4 billion goes to minority-owned companies, 10 percent goes to women-owned companies, and 3 percent goes to disabled veteran companies.”

Mei-Ling’s commitment to fairness for all stems from a lifetime of creating her own opportunities, despite coming up against long odds and personal challenges. Whether it was economic insecurity, moving thousands of miles from her home as a teenager, or even finishing a bachelor’s degree at 57, Mei-Ling is a sterling example of a lifelong learner who refuses to quit on herself, or anyone.

From School to the Workforce

A native of Puerto Rico, Mei-Ling showed academic promise from an early age. She graduated high school at 16 after taking advantage of a program that allowed her to skip a year in school, though she admits her grades didn’t reflect her academic prowess.

“I didn’t have the best GPA,” she recalls. “I was the clown in class when I was in high school. I’ve always been a smart person, but I was a chatterbox and my parents got divorced when I was young. I didn’t really have the parents who say, ‘You have to do good in school, you have to get good grades.”

As Mei-Ling was finishing up school, she felt a need to get away from her circumstances. Her parents' marriage wasn’t working out, so she decided to move to Connecticut to live with her aunt and cousins.

The sudden lifestyle shift was unlike anything Mei-Ling expected. Her aunt already had 13 children to care for, and the oversized family shared two houses that were situated next door to each other.

“The older kids lived in one and my aunt lived in the other with the younger ones about my age,” she says.

With such a large family in a low-income scenario, there wasn’t much to go around, and Mei-Ling didn’t always feel safe in her own neighborhood. But she was determined to create opportunity even when it looked like none was to be had.

Rather than enter college immediately after high school, Mei-Ling started working. Her first taste of the workforce came in the fast-food industry, before she became a receptionist for a nonprofit organization. She continued to advance, while also earning minor academic credentials at community college.

“I did several things outside of my associate degree,” she says. “I became a real estate broker. I never practiced, but I went to school and got my certificate. I went to interior design school. I got a lot of little certificates, and I was happy with that because I was working and making good money.”

Missing her family in Puerto Rico and looking to start one of her own, Mei-Ling returned to the island in her mid-20s, married, and had two kids.

“I kept saying I want to get a bachelor’s degree, but, you know, it was more about my financial situation at the time,” she says.

Like many adult workers, Mei-Ling found herself caught in a situation where she wanted to add more education to her resume, but her workload and family responsibilities kept piling up. She started to gain experience in construction management, helping pave the way for another job transition and a project role for a train that was being built in the territory.

Mei-Ling stayed in Puerto Rico for another 17 years before a close friend asked for her help moving to Colorado.

“I came to Colorado for nine days and I fell in love with it,” she says.

The move led to another opportunity, this time to work on the $488 million redevelopment of Denver Union Station.

Despite her career successes, she yearned for a college degree.

The Path to Lifelong Learning

Mei-Ling remembers the moment that made her look for a new path in life.

About six years ago, she sat in a meeting and everyone was introducing themselves, providing background on their work and education. When it was Mei-Ling’s turn, she felt ashamed because her credentials didn’t stack up.

“I was embarrassed because I had an education and I love learning, but I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree, so I said, ‘You know, I’ve got to get this done, I’ve got to put this behind me or it’s always going to hang over my head.”

It didn’t take long before Mei-Ling was able to change her story. Her search for a flexible university that would allow her to work while pursuing her degree led her to UAGC, where she ultimately earned a Bachelor of Arts in Project Management in 2022 before returning in 2024 to begin pursuing a Master of Arts in Organizational Management.  

Fair Treatment for All

Mei-Ling’s job has her working on some of the most impactful construction projects in the northeast. Among the largest projects on her resume: New York’s UBS Arena (home of the New York Islanders) and the MGM Springfield hotel and casino complex in Massachusetts.

Now, she’s involved in the construction of a new JetBlue Airlines terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. The aforementioned $4 billion price tag is a combination of public and private funding – a “complex project with a lot of moving parts,” Mei-Ling says.

It’s her responsibility to ensure fairness among the vendors, and if she sees something that doesn’t look right, she speaks up.

“My job is to say, ‘Hey, don’t give me lip service,’” she says. “Federally funded projects or state funded projects, there’s no if’s, and’s, or but’s about it. You’re getting public money; you have to provide participation.”

Mei-Ling’s commitment to creating opportunity and fairness stems partly from her life experience as a Puerto Rican growing up in the continental United States. When she moved to Connecticut as a teenager, she found herself surrounded by people who didn’t look, or sound, like her.

“Native Puerto Ricans, they’re afraid to speak English because of their accents, because they think they’re going to made fun of,” she recalls. “Even if you speak English, you’re going to be self-conscious of that accent.”

Motivated to overcome stereotypes and prejudices, Mei-Ling began to embrace the fact that she had been exposed to many cultures throughout her life. Today, she calls being bilingual her “superpower” and is proud of her accent.

An Inspiration to Future Graduates

Like many adult learners, Mei-Ling wants to use her success to inspire others. In 2023, she took part in a UAGC Facebook Live event, sharing her story with the university community and demonstrating that even adult learners working full time have the ability to earn a degree and achieve their dreams.

At the same time, she wants to inspire her two adult children and her grandchildren.

“What I’m doing now serves as an example for you guys,” she tells her children. “I say, ‘It doesn’t have to be at 25 or 30 or 40. It can happen at 50.’ I’m thinking of my grandkids, I want them to be able to say, ‘You know, my grandma finished school when she was 58, so there’s always hope.’”

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