For the rest of her life, May of 2019 will be an especially memorable month for Flor Rodriguez Leal.
First, she'll take the final final exam of her college career, then walk the stage at the UNT Coliseum for commencement. She'll wrap it all up by marrying her high school sweetheart before the happy couple moves to Dallas, where Flor will begin her career as a Financial Analyst in June.
Considering that in addition to being major life milestones, graduation, marriage and moving to a new city are all events that come with considerable price tags, it's a good thing Flor majored in Financial Planning.
The oldest of three daughters growing up in south Irving, it never really occurred to Flor that her family wasn't well off because her parents raised her and her sisters to appreciate the things they did have.
“We had the things we needed and we had each other,” Flor says. “Everything else was just ‘wants' that were granted if there happened to be a little extra.”
Flor's parents are from Nuevo Leon, Mexico, and came to the United States in 1995 to pursue the American dream and give their daughters a brighter future. As the oldest child, Flor grew up having to fulfill certain cultural expectations.
“I knew my role in the household was to help my mom around the house as the oldest in the family. By the time I was 4 years old, I was the ‘big girl', and had to help take care of my younger sisters,” she says.
Growing up with that extra responsibility helped Flor develop a sense of self-sufficiency that proved vital by the time she graduated from high school. When her parents broke the news that they wouldn't be able to help pay her college tuition, she didn't lament the resources she didn't have, but rather drew strength from the support she did have and vowed to find a way so that her parents wouldn't have to pay a dime.
“My parents had already sacrificed enough just by giving my sisters and I the opportunity to pursue a higher education in the United States,” Flor says. “I told my mom that I'd make it work and that if UNT was where I needed to be, God would provide.”
Not only did Flor make it work, but she dove head first into life at UNT. She was an Emerald Eagle Scholar for all four years of her college career; played mellophone in the Green Brigade Marching Band for two years; served as a volunteer math tutor in the Learning Center for a year and a half and as a supplemental instruction leader for business calculus for a year; was an active member and secretary for Women in Business; and joined the Economics Student Organization, where she also served as treasurer.
After four busy years at UNT, Flor was ready to graduate, get married and start her career, but there was one last expense to take care of: the cap and gown. That's where the Mean Green Gowns for Grads program came in.
The Gowns for Grads program was created to support low-income and first-generation UNT students with free rental graduation caps and gowns so that the cost of regalia wouldn't stop any student from celebrating their accomplishments. Flor heard about the program through the Emerald Eagle Scholars organization and suddenly the last puzzle piece fell into place for her to complete her college career.
“The cost may not seem like much to many, but honestly, everything adds up,” she says. “It's one less financial barrier for my parents to have to worry about. It means my parents can breathe easier, hold their heads a little higher, and be able to say their Latina daughter was the first in the family to graduate from a university.”
Once she has her degree, Flor plans to use it to help families like hers.
“I would like to be a financial advisor to low-income families that struggle with their finances, like the families in south Irving that I grew up around,” she says. “I want to be that person my family needed and didn't have access to. It's my way of giving back to the community I grew up in.”
It's somewhat poetic that Flor will be conferred her degree on the eve of Mother's Day, since she also hopes to use it to give her mom an especially meaningful gift.
“I want to be able to help my mom open up her own restaurant,” Flor says. “It has been a dream of my mom's for a long time now, and I want to be able to help her with her dream as she has been able to help me with mine. Gracias mami, por todo.”