Breanna Rodriguez with her husband, Steven, and their three boys, Joseph, 8, Grayson, 6, and Elijah, 1. / Photo from Lee University

When 15-year-old Breanna Gray began her freshman year at Lee University, she didn't imagine graduating to the cheers of her three sons by the time she completed her degree nearly 16 years later.

A native of Cleveland, Gray (now Rodriguez) began her college career early, on full academic scholarship with an original goal of studying elementary education, but she had broad interests and rich potential to excel in a number of fields. By the end of her third year, she had changed her major for the second time and earned a spot as a student worker for information services and technology (IS&T) in 2006.

"I loved what I was doing for IS&T, so it just made sense to switch my major to CIS (Computer Information Systems)," says Rodriguez, "and I could be done in two years."

By the time those two years were up, however, Rodriguez had not yet graduated and found herself with a job offer to work at Lee full time.

Meet the Grads

This is the second part of a series of features on graduates of area universities. Last week, we featured students from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Covenant College. The Times Free Press will continue to run the series on Sundays in May.

"Breanna demonstrated great potential in my Systems Analysis and Design class," says Nate Tucker, Lee's director of IT systems and a CIS instructor. "Because of her ability, she was hired as a full-time employee and carried that potential into the workforce at Lee."

Her plan was to keep taking classes part-time while working full-time in her role as Lee's webmaster. In summer 2009, she married Steven Rodriguez, now a team lead at Volkswagen. Breanna withdrew from classes in fall 2010 as they were expecting their first baby. One year later, wanting to spend more time with her infant son, she resigned her position at the university.

A few years later, after having her second child, Rodriguez went to her former adviser, Dr. Mava Wilson, to see what it would take to complete her degree. "Breanna came to see me many times over the years to see what classes she could take and how close she was, but with little ones at home, it just never seemed feasible to her," says Wilson.

"I spent several years as a full-time mom and a couple years working part time for a local realtor, but I always thought about finishing my degree," Rodriguez says. "After watching my brother graduate from Lee in 2015 and my mom in 2016, I began to believe there still might be a way for me to earn that degree one day.

In fall 2018, after her third child turned 1, Rodriguez discovered she was closer to graduation than she thought. So she re-enrolled in January, completing all degree requirements in time to graduate last weekend.

"I've always believed in Breanna and am proud of her determination to finish," says Tucker. "I am so happy she can celebrate this great milestone."

"I was proud to walk across that stage last weekend, but mostly because my kids were there to see me finish," Rodriguez says. "I know they are too young to realize what they were watching, but I hope someday they understand and that they are proud of me, too."

Top of the Class

The week of June 10-16, the Times Free Press will introduce valedictorians from 50-plus Chattanooga-area high schools. Coverage will include brief profiles and feature stories Monday through Saturday in the Region section and a two-page pullout picturing all the valedictorians in Sunday’s Life section.