By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special to the Bulletin | Published May 28, 2015
CEDARTOWN—As a freshman Leobardo Rodriguez watched his big sister Maria graduate as salutatorian from Cedartown High School and quietly set his own goal to top her and become valedictorian.
While he didn’t quite lock up the top spot, he now graduates as salutatorian in his own class with the satisfaction of having given it his best shot.
He is determined to make the most of opportunities given to him and his two sisters by his parents, factory workers who migrated from Guanajuato, Mexico, in the late 1990s seeking to better provide for their children. The family attends St. Bernadette Church in Cedartown, where Leobardo is an altar server and president of the youth group, and his sister is youth minister.
“It was a really close race. … I gave it all I had. To be salutatorian I think I did something,” he said. “I tried to push myself to do as good as (my sister), if not better.”
“My parents encouraged and pushed me along the way, and I try to make them proud. I see they have made sacrifices to be away from their families to give us this opportunity. I figured it was my responsibility to take the opportunities I had,” Rodriguez said.
He will attend Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where he received a trustee scholarship of $84,000 over four years. He was named Cedartown High School STAR student for earning the top SAT score in his class of 216.
His favorite subject was chemistry, and he’s considering a pre-med track in college or another science or math major. Advanced Placement calculus teacher Camille Whitfield selected him for the Honors Math Award.
“He is naturally a great math student. Math comes very easy to him, but he is also a hard worker,” she said. “Leo works hard and strives for excellence in everything he does. I think it is especially important for Hispanic students to see that they can succeed if they work hard.”
She particularly admires his friendly, caring nature.
“The quality that stands out to me is his compassion and willingness to help others, in and outside of school,” Whitfield said.
Rodriguez served as president of the National Honor Society, where he planned community events, got members involved and built relationships with teachers and students, on top of his schoolwork and job as a restaurant cook.
Initially he thought about not running for president, fearful of rejection. But in doing so he learned about taking positive risks and now encourages freshmen to step out and pursue their own interests.
“I went to give my candidate speech. I was kind of over it and went up confident in myself, telling jokes, and I guess people saw that,” he said. “If you want to do something, just go for it. At end of the day you’ll probably regret not doing it. If you go through with it, there’s nothing you have to lose, but you have a lot to gain.”
‘People like Leo’ make America great
The bilingual teen said that his biggest challenge was to live his faith, make healthy decisions and avoid “the wrong crowd” amidst the swirling peer pressures of youth by focusing on the long-term consequences of his actions. He found great support through St. Bernadette’s youth group, which he helped his sister to reestablish.
“You see how in the secular world these morals aren’t upheld,” he said. “It helped to see people who are actually willing to uphold their Catholic beliefs. That it is something you have to stand up for and still exists and is the right way to go.”
Growing up, he initially felt forced to attend church after his parents began practicing their religion. But by middle school he became interested in Catholicism. This year he was selected as parish Youth of the Year.
“It really means everything. I guess I try to look at things through my faith and to see where (the church) stands in my decisions,” he said. “You don’t really focus on yourself. You’re just about going out and doing service for others, and that comes back to you—you feel self-fulfilled.”
Leobardo was brought to Georgia as a baby and is grateful to have received legal residency status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Deferred action “really was a big help. Once I got it, I got a job and I was helping more people. … Having my license, you have more time with friends,” he said. “It was a wonderful thing.”
St. Bernadette’s pastor Father Timothy Gallagher commended his determination.
“It’s been very challenging for him to stay positive and excel in not having had the benefits of others, and yet he’s persevered through it all. And I think that’s due to his Catholic faith. He takes advantage of the great freedoms in this country,” Father Gallagher said. “It’s what makes America great is people like Leo.”
And he stands out in his church leadership.
“He particularly has been taking a lead role and leading at sessions and keeping other kids motivated,” said Father Gallagher. “He really does take that seriously and leads by example. And to see his public witness to Jesus Christ is very refreshing.”
In the ministry, Leobardo and others have taken an active role in supporting seminarians, sending letters and care packages and befriending them. At Christmas they sang carols for the elderly at a nursing home.
“He comes across as really quiet, kind of a bashful sort of young person. Once you’re around him and get to know him, he opens up, and he’s bright and funny, very supportive and helpful,” said the pastor. “He looks out for people down and out and needing a friend. He’s always looking to give compassion to folks, and people open up to him easily because of that.”
Father Gallagher recalled how Leobardo was disappointed when he didn’t get admission to his first choice college. But he challenged him to consider Mount St. Mary’s as a divine opportunity, which the youth has since come to embrace.
“I’m just really happy for Leo. He puts the best face on the Catholic Church for our youth,” said the pastor.