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Summer 2009

As Luck Would Have It

How one student's family misfortune turned into a second chance and a focus on helping others in higher education


Winning the lottery. It was, in a way, another example of the American Dream come true for doctoral candidate Hanna Rodriguez-Farrar's parents. Immigrants from the Philippines who came to the United States with one-way tickets and $5 in their pockets, Alfeo and Aida Rodriguez had managed over the years to save money, buy a house in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and raise three smart daughters.

And then they went broke.

And so that winning ticket -- not a huge amount, just enough to get them over the hump -- allowed their eldest daughter to pursue her American Dream: Hanna re-enrolled at Brown, the Ivy League university she had dropped out of her sophomore year, in part because of the bankruptcy.

The Beginning Talking to Rodriguez-Farrar today, some 25 years later, it's clear that this second chance had a big impact on the person she has become. It is also why, despite focusing on art history at Brown University (bachelor's, master's, and, as of 2009, a doctorate), she is now devoted to higher education and making sure that others have the same opportunities that she has had.

"I had to give back to 'it,'" she says, "this institution called higher education that has given me and my family so much."

She says she always knew she was going to do higher education, "but when you're 21, you have no idea what the machine is in the background. I was doing 17th century art history -- it doesn't get more obscure."

Her initial plan was to go to grad school for art, get a job teaching, and then become a department head. "There was a ladder," she says. But while studying Charles I and English needlepoint at Brown, in order to makes ends meet she was also doing some adjunct teaching and dabbling in alumni and fundraising work. That's when the "curtain got pulled," she says, and these "extracurriculars" suddenly became her main interest. "Wow. Doing a discipline seemed small in a way. Art history is interesting, but the machine of higher education is more interesting."

It also seemed full of possibilities.

"I read that the provost's job is cool. And institutional advancement, what is that? I cleaned dishes at Brown. How does that impact other students and the university?" she says, recalling how her mind started thinking of all the ways she could make a difference. As she talks, her hands are in constant motion.

She ended up leaving Brown after her master's and got a job at Harvard Business School as a research associate. There she wrote case studies and hoped to learn about general management.

"That's where things really started. My mind was thinking about managing the business of higher education. There are lessons to be learned everywhere and my time at the Business School allowed me to see lessons everywhere," she says. "Studying Burger King, for example, allows you to see the connection to how you manage food services at a college. It made me wonder how do you lead a beast, an institution like Brown or Harvard?"

This led to her fascination with what she calls "the presidency thing." (Something she still toys with for herself someday.)

"It was just after Ruth Simmons became president of Brown. I was like, are you kidding me? An African American at an Ivy league?" she says. "I started thinking about the president as a public intellectual, someone who sticks a stake in the ground and says this is what an institution should be."

In truth, university life fascinated Rodriguez-Farrar long before she ever went to Brown or Harvard. Growing up near the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, she walked around campus all the time and saw college students everywhere.

"College campuses are beautiful. They're always about the mind. That caught on me," she says. "My parents say they had no idea where that came from. They're appreciative of it, but they just thought, 'Well, you're American. That's what you do.'"

Erik Farrar, Rodriguez-Farrar's husband, says it's obvious to anyone who has ever met her family that his wife's interest in education actually started with her parents. (He also jokes that his wife is in her 38th year of school.)

"It's entirely in character and speaks to the powerful service bent in the Rodriguez family," he says. "Both her parents, Mom especially, have always performed what in a different age would be called 'good works.'"

Back in the Philippines, Alfeo and Aida were both college educated. Her father was an agricultural engineer; her mother a chemistry major who came first to the United States, by herself, to attend a one-year medical technician program in Minnesota. (One of her earliest memories of America is sitting on the airplane during her trip over, surrounded by members of the Minnesota Vikings football team.) When Rodriguez- Farrar's father later got accepted to a graduate program at the University of Fargo in North Dakota, her mother sent him a plane ticket and $5 -- exactly what she had when she moved to the States. "That's all he had coming here to Fargo. Eventually they get married and, being good Catholics, they got pregnant with me," Rodriguez-Farrar says. Her father dropped out of school and the fledgling family moved to a new city, Philadelphia, where he took an entry-level job at an engineering firm.

The Middle It started out well -- very well. In his spare time, Alfeo liked to tinker and fix things around the house. He and Aida, now raising two more daughters, decided to invest in rental properties in West Philadelphia that he would renovate.

"He'd do the plumbing, the masonry, all of it," Rodriguez- Farrar says. Eventually they moved to the suburbs and started buying properties in Center City. And then -- and here's where the trouble started -- they decided to venture into businesses, which was different from what they had been doing, which was fixing up apartments. At the time, her mom was working at a jewelry store. They tried to open their own shop. It went bust.

"They overinvested in a business that failed. They had to liquidate, sell the house in the 'burbs, and file for bankruptcy," Rodriguez-Farrar says. "We ended up moving into a smaller apartment in the city that they owned."

They also tried another business: a pizza shop.

"They never did a restaurant before, and it's not easy," Rodriguez-Farrar says, remembering long days and long nights with the whole family pitching in.

At the time, Rodriguez-Farrar's sister Gracie was a senior in high school, Antoinette a freshman at nearby Drexel University. Rodriguez-Farrar was going through her own struggles at Brown, what she calls the "sophomore slump." "Sophomore year is always hard," she says, mentioning the number of young women, including herself, who battle with eating disorders during that year of college. She decided she needed a break from college. She also wanted to make sure her two sisters didn't have to suffer because of the family's financial woes, so she took a leave of absence, moved back home, and started working four different jobs: at a doctor's office at night doing medical billing, an ice cream shop, Urban Outfitters, and the family's pizza shop.

"I was always running around. I was doing 15 hours a day. If you talk to people now, they'd say I haven't changed," she says, laughing a full laugh that comes out often during the interview.

Despite the bleak situation, Rodriguez-Farrar was eventually able to see a silver lining: the experience of losing it all made her realize what she was missing -- school. That summer she took classes at nearby Temple University. "By the end of July, my mom said, 'I'm sending you back to Brown,'" she says. She went, moving into an off-campus apartment. It was then that she decided to switch majors from pre-med to art history.

"My parents were really good about it," she says, remembering the conversation. "All they said was, 'You need to find your own way. That must be the American way.'"

This ability to see silver linings and move beyond one's own troubles is something Rodriguez-Farrar says she learned from them. Even after they filed for bankruptcy, her parents dusted themselves off and moved on.

"The thing with my parents is that it's about faith. Things will work out, but sometimes you just need a little help. They really believe in that. Plus, they came from nothing so they thought, fine, we'll start over," she says. "My father had never failed before, but they had no time to wallow in it. These were two people who went through World War II in the Philippines. My dad was effectively an orphan, raised by siblings. My mom lived in the mountains, raised by an aunt. So losing the business, losing the house -- it sucks, but we need to just not fail anymore. You have to move forward."

She says she sees a similar ethos in others at the Ed School. "What drives a lot of people at GSE is knowing that same story and knowing that education gets you to the other side," she says. "Some people start on third base. I was in the dugout. It's humbling to recognize your capital."

The Now Regardless of where she started, or the path she took to get here, now as a doctoral student, Rodriguez-Farrar is always moving at warped speed, or as Matt Miller, Ed.M.'01, Ed.D.'06, assistant dean for academic affairs at the Ed School, says, "Hanna's steady state is most people's overdrive." He adds, "I think we need a special 70-hour workweek to accommodate Hanna."

Rodriguez-Farrar first started working with Miller when she became a doctoral research assistant. "She shared an interest in working on some survey research on doctoral student advising that a group of faculty and administrators had decided to commission," Miller says. "It seems to me this is typical of Hanna -- following her passions, her many, varied interests and passions, and taking on new projects to satiate her seemingly unbounded curiosity and to keep her at just the right level of frenetic 'flow.'" (Her friend and fellow doctoral student Angela Boatman, Ed.M.'08, says she was initially surprised to hear that Rodriguez-Farrar had studied art history. "But after knowing her and her unending curiosity for the world," she says, "I am not surprised in the least.")

Her husband, whom she met at Brown when he was the assistant water polo coach and she was checking IDs at the pool -- he's now the Harvard women's and men's water polo coach -- says her high level of energy is pretty much 24/7.

"I think it was [science fiction writer Robert] Heinlein who said that in living life, one should 'take big bites. Moderation is for monks.' That's Hanna," he says, "100 percent on the reactor at all times. Always something going on." (She doesn't disagree. Last summer, she admits, she even had seven different jobs at the Ed School.)

But as Miller says, this constant motion isn't just about keeping busy: Rodriguez-Farrar really does want to make to make a difference in higher education.

"One of the things that I think I have come to understand about Hanna is that she gets passionate about ways that her work can actually change real conditions in settings she cares about," he says. Since 2005 she has been a trustee on the Brown University Corporation and served as president of the alumni association. While a student at the Ed School, she served as a student representative during the last Harvard president search and as an editor on the Harvard Educational Review, not to mention the seven part-time jobs, including her current ones: as a research assistant and "go-to person" for Professor Tom Kane and his Center for Education Policy Research and as a project manager for Professor Bridget Terry Long.

Miller says, "She takes all these jobs not out of a drive toward overcommitment for its own sake, but because she gets energized about making a difference -- keeping Brown worldclass, doing what she can to promote high-quality training for her fellow doctoral students, and so on."

Farrar again points to the influence of his wife's parents. "Imagine going from 50 miles north of the equator to Fargo, North Dakota," he says. "Through initiative and very hard work, Hanna's parents built a successful life here. It took me two years after I met them to finally convince them that they should take one day off per week."

A few years ago, after living with Rodriguez-Farrar and her husband as they renovated their 1864 Italianate in Providence, R.I., her parents moved to Orlando to be near her sister Antoinette, who works at Disney and is in an eMBA program at Kellogg. While in Florida, they both became students again.

"At 60, my mom went back to school and became a massage therapist and my dad became an elder care specialist," Rodriguez- Farrar says. "At one point, when he was in his 50s, when I was in grad school at Brown, he talked about going to law school. I told him he should do Kaplan to help with the LSAT. He signed up, near the University of Pennsylvania. One of the kids in his class said to him, 'Oh, the trash can is over there.'

"I was outraged for him. I wanted to go down there and kick their you-know-whats, but he joked and said, 'No, I'm here to take the test.' My dad, by the end of the class, was tutoring the kids."

Eventually her parents moved to San Francisco (where Gracie runs patemm, a successful infant changing pad company) to be closer to their grandchildren. Her father works in elder care and her mother uses massage on people with dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Both have taken up guitar lessons.

"Their belief that it's never too late to go back to school," she says, "has given them a new lease on life. I'm so proud of them and like to think that I'll do the same thing. It takes a lot of courage."

As for her own next move, Rodriguez-Farrar says that's still up in the air. In the spring, just as her Brown doctorate was approved, she turned in her final qualifying paper at the Ed School, which looks at higher education fundraising. In an ideal world, she says she will graduate in 2010. "If the stars align and my mom does enough rosaries."

"People ask me, 'And then what?' Honestly, I don't know. Something will present itself," she says. "I went into this thinking I was going to be a college president. I don't know if that's still true, but I do know that there are other ways to make a difference in higher education."

And no lottery ticket is needed.

After this story was published, Hanna Rodriguez-Farrar was named assistant to the president of Brown University. She began in her new position on July 1, 2009.