Rodrigo Lopez-Ruiz is spending his last few weeks of high school finishing work for his classes, including three dual-enrollment courses, while school buildings remain closed.
But he’s also doing something that extends beyond himself and his high school education — he prepares meals for patients at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital, some of whom have COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
As a part-time food service worker at the hospital, he’s realized the severity of the situation that has interrupted his senior year. “I’ve got to see people that have the virus first-hand. It is a call to reality,” he said. “This is a serious pandemic. It has taught me to be more careful, wash my hands, wear masks.”
He also sees the purpose in his job, which he’s had for a year-and-a-half.
“It’s a great experience knowing I am able to help someone who is suffering. They are going through a lot right now. They are not able to see their families right now.” Rodrigo said. “It’s a good experience being able to help somebody.”
Humble and Hardworking
At Wyoming High School, Rodrigo is known as a humble, hard-working student who has tons of self-motivation and a mind for business. He’s confident, yet kind, and mature well beyond his years, staff members said. Born in Grand Rapids, he was raised by a single mother who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico as a young child with her mother — Rodrigo’s grandmother — who was seeking a better life for her family.
Three years ago his mother, stepfather and younger sister returned to Mexico to live. Rodrigo chose to remain in Wyoming, living with his aunt and two younger cousins. He is responsible for paying his own bills and rent and managing his own time. He also lives close to his grandmother, with whom he has a special bond.
“I just wanted to finish school here and be able to help my family out from there,” he said.
He talks to his mother two or three times a week by phone and planned to visit his family in Michoacan, Mexico, for Spring Break. The trip, which would have involved his first flight, paid for himself, was cancelled due to the virus.
Rodrigo has attended Wyoming Public Schools since seventh grade. Before that he attended Kentwood Public Schools and Godfrey-Lee Public Schools.
He said his mother worked hard to make ends meet when he was a young child. “That’s when my family struggled the most. My mom had to raise me by herself. She had to work two to three jobs. I never missed school. I always had clothes and food.” Things improved financially when his mother met the man who would become his stepdad, and they were able to move to their own house instead of living with a grandmother.
Taking On Personal Accountability
Being largely on his own and taking responsibility for himself has been challenging, Rodrigo said. He was pretty apathetic about school when his family first left, because he was missing his mom and dealing with emotions surrounding that.
“It’s been very hard, actually. Getting used to it was hard,” he said, noting that while he likes his freedom, he’s on his own. “I have nobody to push me, so I have to push myself.”
He also has his friends and Wyoming staff members, two of whom he feels especially connected: business teacher Jon Bushen and counselor Anne Harig. He said they’ve helped give him perspective and the will to do well in school.
Bushen said he’s seen Rodrigo grow up a lot.
“Rodrigo is a young man with a great future who has persevered through high school amongst some of the challenges he has faced. I have had the pleasure to walk alongside and watch him mature and grow as a man in the last few years,” he said.
“I know he has a bright future ahead with whatever he puts his mind to, and I wish him the best. I can’t wait to hear about the success he has after high school and the lives he touches. Just one of the many success stories here at Wyoming High School.”
Harig helped Rodrigo realize the opportunity available to him by signing up for Wyoming Middle College, a dual enrollment program with Grand Rapids Community College, through which students can earn a free associate’s degree while still in high school. Students spend a fifth year as Wyoming High School students, but with all classes on the GRCC campus.
“Around the time my mother was leaving, I knew I would somehow have to pay for college, Rodrigo said. “You can’t beat free. It’s a good program. I joined it, and Mrs. Harig keeps me on track. She is one of the people that has helped me through the Middle College and high school classes.”
He said Bushen helped him understand the importance of grades and how they would help him achieve his goals. “A good GPA makes a big difference. I made it a point to get good grades. My goal was over 3.0; now I’m almost at 3.4.”
After next school year at GRCC, Rodrigo plans to transfer to Michigan State University and get a degree in business. “I want to do something in business, but I also want to talk to people and engage and help people. I want to be able to give back.”
Harig said Rodrigo has stepped up to very adult responsibilities on his own, including managing his time and steering clear of bad choices. “I’m impressed at his age that he put boundaries on himself. He really makes his own rules.”
Rodrigo said he also surrounds himself with friends, and chooses for himself to make good choices. His friends are like family to him.
“I always had that right mindset that I want to be someone in life. I want to get to a certain point in my life where I am content,” he said
Too Soon to End High School
A football player, Rodrigo also was involved in Business Professionals of America, a highlight of his high school journey. While the state and national competitions were canceled due to the pandemic, he placed second in payroll accounting and first in video production with a team who produced a video encouraging donations to the Family Network of Wyoming, a local food pantry.
Ending senior year without experiencing important milestones is difficult, he said. While Wyoming High School’s graduation ceremony was scheduled for May 19, Rodrigo and his classmates are still hopeful they will be on stage sometime in the near future to receive their diplomas.
“I remember my sophomore year, when it was the seniors’ last day they got to walk the hallways. I thought, I want to do that someday. Being able to walk the stage is a dream of mine. Having my family there is a dream of mine.”
But regardless of missing out on the end of senior year, Rodrigo knows that whatever comes his way he will continue to move forward, work hard and serve others. Those are his rules.
It’s that mentality that has Harig envisioning Rodrigo as a successful business owner someday.
“I really believe he has the intelligence, the grit and personality to start his own business,” she said.