1.7 million. That’s the dollar amount that Nimitz High School’s Denise Rodriguez has earned in scholarship offers.

She interviewed for five full-ride scholarships, ultimately earning the Gates Scholarship as well as the Presidential Scholarship from Southern Methodist University (SMU). She was also named a Dell Scholar and will be graduating as salutatorian of her class this Friday. 

“A lot of these opportunities came from being in AVID and my AVID teacher, Ms. [Iris] Hill, who would tell me about all these scholarships,” says Rodriguez. “I applied to every single one of them hoping I got one. I got rejected by a couple, but it all worked out.”

AVID, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination, is a program for students in 7th through 12th grades, which prepares students for the rigor and challenges of college classes, all while fostering an environment of heightened learning and performance in school.

Rodriguez, an Irving native who attended Irving ISD’s Pierce Early Childhood, Britain Elementary, Bowie Middle and Nimitz High schools, is headed to SMU on a full ride to study environmental engineering. After completing her undergraduate studies, she plans to pursue a master’s degree in sustainability or a law degree to practice environmental law. Ultimately, she wants to start a nonprofit to give minorities access to resources such as clean water or energy.   

“My interest in environmentalism comes from seeing the world and how we’re not taking care of it, and the impact of climate change,” says Rodriguez. “But also, my parents. They come from Mexico, where they rely heavily on agriculture to make a living.”

She further credits her biology teacher, Bibi Mendez, for fostering her interest in science through her class and Science Club, which Mendez sponsors and Rodriguez serves as president.

“Being part of the Science Club is my favorite high school memory,” says Rodriguez. “We would stay after school doing fun, random labs like putting DNA in little jars and then putting them on necklaces, and pig hearts. Just staying after school and having fun with people who have a shared interest was a lot of fun.”

In addition to AVID and Science Club, Rodriguez also serves as vice president of the National Honor Society and is involved with the TRIO educational outreach program outside of school. 

Also on her resume is the fact that she earned a college degree before receiving her high school diploma. Rodriguez graduated from Dallas College with an associate’s degree last Friday through Irving ISD’s early college start program.

“That’s all because of Ms. [Cristina] Windom, my counselor,” says Rodriguez. “She’s the one who sat down with me, listed all of the classes and said we’re going to do this, take these classes over the summer, these classes this semester, these credits are going to work for this. She’s the one who guided me. My other counselor, Ms. [Nadine] Clavo also helped me with my letters of recommendation, even when they were last-minute asks.”

Most importantly, Rodriguez credits her slew of success to her parents, who she describes as her “biggest support system,” and Irving ISD, who she describes as a “true community.”

“My advice to students is to ask a lot of questions – even the silly ones,” she says. “Especially in Irving ISD, I see all of the resources we have that others don’t. I see how other family members go to schools outside of this district, and they don’t have access to as many opportunities. But the reason I have access to these opportunities is because I am asking questions constantly. All it takes is one question that could lead to an opportunity which could lead you to another resource. That’s how I got into AVID, that’s how I got into TRIO, that’s how I got into all of the programs I’m in. That’s how I got to where I am now.”

Congratulations, Denise. Irving ISD is proud of you!