There are two ways to look at the success of Abel Rodriguez, a soon-to-graduate marketing major who will address fellow graduates during Roosevelt University's May 10 Commencement.
On the one hand, the 23-year-old business student embodies the promise of a college education: Rodriguez will start a full-time job following graduation as a data analyst for a Chicago company where he previously was a Roosevelt student intern.
On the other, Rodriguez is a survivor who remains on his feet continuing to persevere in spite of spina bifida, a potentially debilitating deformity at the base of his spine that he was born with, and will struggle with, for the rest of his life.
"This is a student who has maturity and vision,"; said Asghar Sabbaghi, the Roosevelt Heller College of Business dean who nominated Rodriguez to be the University's coveted Student Commencement Speaker.
"He (Rodriguez) strives for competency and tries his best to learn from all kinds of opportunities. I've only known him for a year, but Abel has made a great impression on me," said Sabbaghi, who, like everyone at Roosevelt, never knew about Rodriguez' condition and the challenges he faces nearly every day as a result.
Back pain, difficulty walking and limited feeling in his feet are a few of the challenges he has dealt with since childhood. Rodriguez also already has had three tethered-cord surgeries, with doctors at the University of Chicago Hospital unraveling and removing a fatty tumor, and later its scar tissue, from strangling his spinal cord and damaging his central nervous system.
"This is something that will follow my son for the rest of his life," said Rodriguez' mother, Yvonne Gomez, who called her son's story, including his upcoming graduation and selection as Student Commencement Speaker "an inspiration and miracle."
"He could be wearing leg braces or be confined to a wheelchair. Instead, Abel is making the most of his life. He has really flourished at Roosevelt, and I believe he can do anything he wants. There is nothing that will bind him," she said.
As a Roosevelt student, Rodriguez has accomplished great things: Not only did he participate in the 2018 Clinton Global Initiative; he also met and shook hands with Bill Clinton.
As co-president of a Roosevelt entrepreneurship student organization, Rodriguez worked closely with fellow business students to promote social entrepreneurship as a means for making a difference for the better in society.
As vice president of Heller College's Student Advisory Board, Rodriguez also helped lay the groundwork for a student entrepreneurship incubator at 1871 in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, the region's premiere higher education incubator.He also already has landed a full-time job with a software and investment company, Back Stop Solutions Group in Chicago.
While the Roosevelt student acknowledges facing health challenges daily, including fears that he may one day in the near future walk like an old man with a cane, he wants fellow graduates to know that they can achieve anything they want in life as long as they put their minds to it.
"Spinal bifida is something that I deal with every day, but I don't want to be seen differently from others because of it," Rodriguez said.
"I work my hardest to achieve great things in spite of adversity, and if my story can inspire even a single person then sharing my experience will have been worth it," he added.
Rodriguez graduated in 2014 from Johnsburg High School in Johnsburg, Ill. He currently lives with his grandparents in south suburban Frankfort, Ill.