Persevere (verb): 1. To continue in the face of difficulty; 2. Celibermari Rodriguez

After starting her online program during Hurricane Maria, Celibermari Rodriguez of Puerto Rico earned her UND master’s degree this summer

Celibermari Rodriguez started her first semester at UND’s online master’s program in nutrition in 2017, a few weeks before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, where she lives. Despite the challenges, she persevered, earning her degree this summer. Image courtesy of Celibermari Rodriguez.

Imagine enduring one of the deadliest, most devastating natural disasters in history as it ravages your community, killing thousands of citizens on its path of destruction and leaving many thousands of others homeless. You have no power; you have no internet.

If you were in your first semester of an online master’s degree, delivered by faculty some 2,500 miles away, would you stay the course?

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which battered Puerto Rico in Sept. 2017, Celibermari Rodriguez persevered. At the time, she had been an online graduate student in nutrition at the University of North Dakota for only a few weeks. But she pressed forward with her studies, even though she also had family and patients to take care of. Even though she had to drive far away to remotely access her courses on her phone.

Rodriguez was fortunate, in that her house sustained minor damages. But electricity and internet at home did not return until December, some four months later. Still, she found a way.

Why did she decide to continue?

“Well, I’m very responsible,” she said with a smile during a recent Zoom interview. “I always like to finish what I start.”

A drive to help others

By the time Rodriguez enrolled at UND, she had been a dietitian for just over a decade. Having graduated from the University of Puerto Rico, she’d always wanted to attend a master’s program. But she especially wanted the right one – the one with a challenging curriculum that fit her goals of diversifying her expertise.

Image courtesy of Celibermari Rodriguez.

And, then, of course, life happened. Rodriguez had a daughter. She held good jobs, ones in which she enjoyed helping people not only balance their weight but also regain and maintain their wellness. That’s why Rodriguez went into dietetics in the first place, after learning about the discipline in eighth grade through an assignment in an English class.

“I wanted to do that because I really wanted to help people achieve their health goals,” she said, adding that like many teenage girls, she struggled with her weight in school. “That is very important: to help people prevent disease, to have a better quality of life through nutrition. You don’t have to wait to be unhealthy or have a disease to eat well and take care of yourself.”

Throughout her career, Rodriguez has worked with diverse patients, from pregnant women to the homeless. She is aware of the negative perceptions that dog her as a professional. After all, scores of patients first picture a nagging nutritionist counting their calorie intake, telling them what to eat and what not to. She spurns that role.

“I always like to listen to the patient, not just tell them what to do,” Rodriguez said. “That way, they see for themselves they have other options. It’s very nice when you can follow up with those patients and see their progress, because it’s not only about weight. It can also be about overall nutrition and exercise, energy and comfort with yourself.”

A university that cared

When Rodriguez decided it was time to go back to school, she sought remote programs. She did not want to uproot her daughter. A colleague who was considering UND’s online master’s degree in nutrition told her about the University, and Rodriguez enrolled.

“I really liked that at UND, all the instructors demonstrated that they really care for the students,” Rodriguez said. “They weren’t giving a class just to give it. And, what you were learning, you could apply it to your current work or to what you were going to do in the future.”

Working full-time and raising her child, Rodriguez studied in the evenings and on weekends. But when Hurricane Maria hit, it washed her routine away, too. Rodriguez, her daughter and parents moved in with her sister – who had a power generator – for some time. The nature of her work also changed.

“When you lose your house or have no electricity or water, the last person who people want is to see a nutritionist,” Rodriguez said. “You don’t want to tell me what to eat now. I will eat what I have.”

Rodriguez did not instruct fellow Puerto Ricans what to eat. Instead, she taught them how to preserve what they had; how to keep it from contamination; how to store it safely. With coworkers, she also distributed supplies and provided health care services.

“This is what the community needed,” she said.

Through it all, Rodriguez did not abandon her course work. “I tried to communicate and see what options I had,” she said. “When one of the professors said, ‘Don’t worry about the due dates. You can finish when you have your electricity and internet established,’ I said, ‘Well, okay, let’s do it.’”

Rodriguez used her lunch breaks to catch up on readings. She drove to local establishments with spotty mobile connectivity to check emails and assignments. Yet, she struggled with a course in statistics, which she had to later retake.

“This was harder,” she said. “I really needed to have live classes every week. So, I accepted the incomplete and then finished the course the next semester that it was again available.”

Rodriguez graduated this summer.

If she could distill her experience into a single lesson, she’d like it to be the example she hopes to set for her daughter. “I really want to teach her to persevere,” she said. “You can do whatever you set your mind to if you really work hard.”