Rodriguez is part of the millennial generation, which is gripped by rising costs of living, less opportunity for financial security, and the economic anxieties that result. These young people are often doing unskilled work in low-paying jobs.
“I didn’t know where I was heading, I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” said Rodriguez, who tried his hand at math and marketing, but could not find a sense of “belonging.” He was the only member of his family to attend college and had no mentors to advise him. He felt pressured to go to college and took out loans to pay for it. He soon realized that college may not be his ideal route; he had and a cousin the army, so he enlisted in the Marine Corps. “Hopefully, the military could straighten you out to do things the right way,” he said. He tried to continue his education while in the Marines, but going through training required him to miss finals, which landed him on academic probation.
“When I came home from training, I was on my own,” Rodriguez said. “I tried going back to school, but I couldn’t do it. They required you to go to community college and take summer courses. I didn’t have the money, I didn’t have nothing really, so that whole dream of coming back home and trying to come back to school didn’t work.”
A teachable moment
“My early 20s taught me so much,” he said, regretting that he spent his time at bars. “All the little mistakes I made.”
“Something told me there was more to life than going to work for a couple of hours, going home, having a couple drinks and reporting to my unit,” Rodriguez said. “I wanted more than just that. I wanted to wake up and not worry about what I’m going to eat tonight. If I buy this six-pack will I have lunch tomorrow? I wanted more in life.”
He received on-the-job training through Workforce Opportunity Services, which serves veterans.
Through resilience, determination, and a bit of luck, he started work in IT security in 2015 and now works for a real estate company as a threat-and-vulnerability analyst, which gives him the economic security that many his age aspire to. After years of working and training, he finally landed a promotion.
The weight of the world was lifted from his shoulders. “For someone to tell me I am what they want was more gratifying than getting a promotion, honestly,” he said.
“I wanted to wake up and not worry about what I’m going to eat tonight.” – Juan Rodriguez
Since he did not have advisors or mentors, his advice to others who are in the position he was is to foster supportive relationships. For Rodriguez, those people now include his brother, a friend he met at St. Peter’s University, and his girlfriend.
He also espouses interpersonal and communication skills.
“I got those skills working in Shop Rite and in a restaurant and being in the military,” he said.
But he acknowledged that people often feel stigmatized if they have no one to confide in. “Some people call it therapy, or a best friend,” he said. “It’s important to find someone to sit there and talk to. They might not have the answers to everything you need. Sometimes it feels like it’s you against the world, but it’s not you against the world. If you commit solely to that, you’re probably going to be a loner.”
Rodriguez is not living paycheck to paycheck anymore. His confidence his high, and he’s set his sights high as well. He now aspires to go back to school and buy a home, which is often a challenge for the millennial generation, as 24-35-year-olds are half as likely to own homes today as they were in 1975, according to U.S. Census data.
“I am so much more confident in myself and in my ability to go to school to get that elusive degree,” he said.
He’d even like to own a real estate company to provide quality housing at affordable prices.
“I want people, when they’re coming home, to feel like they’re coming home,” said Rodriguez, who jumped from apartment to apartment throughout his teens and 20s. “I want people to feel like this is theirs.”
Against the odds, Rodriguez is succeeding.
“It sounds funny, but I’ve repeated it to myself so many times, and I tell everybody I want to get it tattooed: ‘where there’s a will there’s a way.’”
Rory Pasquariello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.