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Supportive friends, family & teachers made the difference

Grad with Grit: Rolando Rios-Rodriguez

Kenowa Hills — Unlike the majority of his classmates, senior Rolando Rios-Rodriguez was not a Kenowa Hills Knight during his entire K-12 education. 

His family moved between three school districts from the time he was in kindergarten through the eighth grade. 

“It was kind of disappointing at the end of a school year when we found out we were going to move again,” Rolando recalled.

Changing their rental home address every year, he said, brought his family — his mom, dad and three sisters — closer together, but made it difficult to maintain friendships at school and make new friends “when everyone already had their friend groups. I was very quiet my freshman year, and spent sophomore online during COVID.” 

But in his four years at Kenowa Hills High School, Rolando found his people, overcame academic struggles and will be the first in his immediate family to attend college. He will start classes at Grand Rapids Community College this fall. 

“I kind of always wanted to go to college, but didn’t know what I could go for,” he said. “I know I want to help people, something like a doctor or lawyer, to help people with real problems.”

He added: “My mom and dad have been very supportive and make me feel proud of myself. In a way I’m doing this for them too. I want to have a successful career, but I always have them in the back of my head.”

A first-generation college student, Rolando Rios-Rodriguez will attend Grand Rapids Community College this fall

The Road to College 

Rolando said he didn’t hit his academic stride until junior year, but he knew he had the potential to do better. 

“I like school, but I haven’t always done my best,” he said before graduation. “Last semester, I barely passed, but this semester I almost have all As.”

Outside of school, Rolando pushed himself to join clubs and make friends. 

“Most kids here have been at Kenowa Hills their whole lives, and I felt like I stood out too much being new,” he said. “ I think it’s important to not change who you are to fit in, and stay true to yourself.” 

Slowly but surely, Rolando became close with soccer teammates, who he said helped motivate him on the field and in the classroom. 

“I know I’m smart; if I try hard enough and put my mind to it, it will all be worth it in the end.”

Rolando said he was encouraged by his teachers who wanted him to succeed and saw him as more than just a student. 

‘His capacity to persevere through any hurdle life throws at him is unmatched.’

— teacher Spencer VanderHeide

Teacher Spencer VanderHeide said Rolando was the definition of resilience.

“I have had the honor of having a front row seat to witness (him) overcome any setback, time and time again, with both tenacity and gumption,” VanderHeide said. “His capacity to persevere through any hurdle life throws at him is unmatched.”

Principal Nate Robrahn described Rolando as a selfless leader, who is constantly on the lookout for the well-being of others despite his own obstacles. 

“In a world where everyone is talking and nobody is listening, Rolando’s quiet leadership in the classroom and on the field went a long way to make all of his classmates and teammates feel both supported and heard.”

Rolando Rios-Rodriguez, far right, with his dad and three sisters

Read more from Kenowa Hills: 
Beating cancer, with kindness and grace  
Sports-music balance a challenge and a motivator

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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