Article has a video
Campus Life

‘My Aggie Ring Has Always Been My Motivation’

After a traumatic brain injury caused her to lose her memory, an Aggie Ring helped first-generation student Jennifer Rodriguez remember her goals.
By Caitlin Clark, Video by Joseph Xu, Texas A&M University Division of Marketing & Communications November 12, 2021

jennifer rodriguez giving a gig 'em in front of the aggie ring statue
Jennifer Rodriguez ’23.

Joseph Xu/Texas A&M Division of Marketing & Communications

 

The summer before her freshman year of college in 2017, Jennifer Rodriguez ’23 woke up to find herself in a hospital bed, breathing by way of a ventilator. Doctors had induced a coma due to the painful swelling in her brain caused by a car wreck she could not remember. She was told the salient points: a stormy day, in the passenger seat of her sister’s car on the way to the grocery store.

Rodriguez, who was 19 at the time, had spent about three weeks in the coma, with machines drawing her breaths as she was fed through a tube in her stomach. Those first days of consciousness, all she could manage was a blank stare. The faces of family members sparked a shadow of recognition, but she could not recall their names. Also lost were the memories of her recent accomplishments: graduating as valedictorian of her high school with plans to attend Texas A&M University in the fall.

The last few years – and her future dreams – had vanished. After being airlifted to another hospital, Rodriguez began physical therapy, working to improve her gait by walking up and down the halls with the help of a walker. A cognitive therapist evaluated her via simple math exams — she couldn’t work out how to solve about 75 percent of the problems.

One day, a flash of gold on the right hand of her physical therapist, Justin McCright ’12, triggered a memory.

“I asked him, ‘Is that an Aggie Ring?’ and he said yes, and it all started coming back,” she said.

She excitedly told her physical therapist about the goals she had set for herself before the accident: continuing her education at Texas A&M, joining the Corps of Cadets and playing clarinet in the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band, and eventually attending medical school.

Now a junior studying kinesiology with a concentration in basic exercise physiology, Rodriguez said even before her traumatic injury she was no stranger to a challenge.

Growing up in the tiny town of Pittsburg not far from the Texas-Louisiana border, Rodriguez and her older sister had to be responsible from a young age. As an elementary schooler, she would translate from English to Spanish for her parents when scheduling appointments and talking to teachers and soccer coaches.

“My mom and dad always wanted me to get as much familiarity with communication as possible because they didn’t know English very well, and wanted me not to experience those issues,” she said. “It really put me in that spot at a very young age, and it was fine because I really wanted to grow and be independent.”

In high school, she played clarinet in the marching band and served as drum major, along with baton twirling. By the end of her senior year Rodriguez had graduated at the top of her class. When it came time to make a decision about college, she kept returning to a familiar tune she had heard throughout her school years in Pittsburg.

“Our school song at PHS is the Aggie War Hymn, so throughout the first grade into high school I always heard that song and it just felt right,” Rodriguez said.

close up of rodriguez's hand showing aggie ring on her finger

“Just looking into the ring and seeing ‘Texas A&M’ I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s right.'”

The car wreck just two weeks before her New Student Conference put these plans on hold. Rodriguez deferred admission and took classes at her local community college as she recovered. She eventually enrolled in spring 2019.

But even when Rodriguez thought she was ready for college, she soon learned that she really wasn’t — not yet. As a first generation student, she struggled to navigate the financial aid and admissions process, and once on campus found it difficult to get her footing. Her sister, who was a student at Stephen F. Austin University, was on speed dial to answer the many questions that came up.

Her aspirations to join the Corps of Cadets also had to be put on hold. Rodriguez said the rigors of physical fitness weren’t an option after her injury, and her physicians asked her to focus on academics for the time being.

“When I first got here on campus, I just felt out of place. I couldn’t situate myself and couldn’t feel comfortable,” Rodriguez said. “I knew if had been able to join the Corps, things would have been different, but everything was so new again. I was starting school again and taking on those personal responsibilities.”

In addition to the struggles of being a first generation student – like not knowing who to turn to for help or knowing what to prepare for – Rodriguez was living on her own for the first time as she recovered from a traumatic brain injury and memory loss. She had to set multiple alarms each day to remind herself to perform basic tasks like eating breakfast, showering and going to class as she worked to improve her cognitive abilities.

“That first semester didn’t go as I expected, so I made the decision to withdraw as I knew I had more to give but was not yet ready,” she said.

That fall, though, is when Rodriguez said she started to feel like her former self. Her grades improved, and she currently serves as secretary and Star Status coordinator of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars. Rodriguez began serving as secretary when she was invited to join the organization in spring 2020. She also serves as an altar server and mass lector at St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Sundays, duties she also carried out in her hometown.

The following semesters “flew by” – in October sher family was by her side as she received her Aggie Ring. She’s auditioned to play in the University Concert Band in the spring, and hopes to apply to professional school after after graduation. Rodriguez aspires to attend physical therapy school and dreams of attending medical school.

“My Aggie Ring represents all of the hard work I have put forth and represents every solution that has resolved difficult situations I have had to face,” she said. “My family are the only reason that I am here today, because when I couldn’t remember or wanted to give in, they were always there to remind me that I could do this and I could go back to the person that I was before. My Aggie Ring has always been my motivation to reach the heights that I once did because I know it is possible.

“To this day, my goal is to surpass my expectations and to reach the heights I originally set to achieve,” she said. “I primarily hope to bring light to those who too must cope with a challenging life experience from their past. Always remain strong, follow your dreams and rise.”

Media contact: Caitlin Clark, caitlinclark@tamu.edu

Recent Stories