In our series A Class Of Their Own, Refinery29 is following five college freshwomen from across the country as they define their identities and relationships. Ask most college freshmen what they miss now that they've left the nest, and you expect to hear answers such as high school buddies, former sports teams and clubs, childhood pets, and home-cooked meals. But Denesha Rodriquez? She misses the land. The 20-year-old mother of a baby boy is a new student at Glendale Community College — a 20,000-student campus just outside of Phoenix. She's already what most would consider a "non-traditional" freshwoman, but when you add in the fact that Rodriquez grew up on a Native American reservation (the San Carlos Apache Nation, established in 1871), you take the term "non-traditional" to another level. And the reservation is still on Rodriquez’s mind as she rushes around the bustling campus and city, from classes to her one-year-old son’s day care. For starters, Rodriquez misses the culture (the food, the rituals, the music), and being able to fish or hunt or hike on the 1.8 million acres of land she grew up on. She laments the tedious process of acquiring permits that non-natives must go through just to be able to wander in the woods. “When I wanted to go to the mountains, I would go. When I wanted to go to the lakes and the rivers, I would go,” she told me. “I didn’t have to think about all the expenses and protocol you go through here. The land was just free, and I would just go.”
When I wanted to go to the mountains, I would go. When I wanted to go to the lakes and the rivers, I would go.
That said, despite the beauty of the reservation and its proximity to Rodriquez's friends and family, she made a conscious decision to extricate herself from San Carlos Apache as soon as she was able. “I moved off the reservation at 18, just after finishing high school,” she says. “Even though it was beautiful, I wanted to get away from it — because of all the violence, alcohol, and drugs.” Like a number of Native American reservations, San Carlos Apache Nation has seen its share of crime. It’s also been struck with devastating unemployment levels and poverty, which only further fuel drug culture and violence.
Things are getting better on the reservation, though, Rodriquez says, and she intends to be a part of that upward trend. In fact, she's specifically working toward a Bachelor's degree in criminal justice and plans to go into law enforcement upon graduation. Her ultimate goal is to move back to San Carlos Apache, degree in hand, to assist with crime reduction and improve the quality of life for the people there. She's even begun the process of planning out the future of her plot of land (these plots are awarded to all residents of the Nation). Like any college student, though, Rodriquez isn't only keeping her nose in the books. In addition to running on the cross-country team, she serves as the vice president of the Native American Student Association at GCC. And then, there's her home life. Her boyfriend, Juan, also lives in Glendale; they met on Facebook and have been dating for three years. Their son was a surprise — one that turned out to be a blessing.
“Doctors told me that I couldn’t have kids,” Rodriquez explained. “I was having unprotected sex for two and a half years with my boyfriend…and then, one day, I conceived.” When that pregnancy test came back positive, Rodriquez was only months away from starting her freshman year. “I was really mad when I realized I was pregnant,” she said. “But I picked myself up and I said, ‘This is for my son and for my future.’” After consideration, Rodriquez made the decision to briefly postpone her academic endeavors while she carried and cared for her baby, with Juan by her side. Then, she re-enrolled at GCC a year later.
The college dating game isn’t something that occupies Rodriquez’s time or energy, because she’s a mother and in a long-term relationship. Sure, she likes to dress stylishly and spends time making sure her hair and makeup are on point, and she notices the muscled men who pass by her on campus. When asked whether she felt like she was missing out on the school's hookup and dating culture, Rodriquez joked about what it might be like to sneak behind a campus building to make out with one of those strapping, book-carrying passers-by.
Fantasies and admirations from afar are just that, though. There's little time for dating when you've got day care pickups, homework, and school activities filling up your calendar. “Since I'm in a long-term relationship, I don't need to worry about drama or having problems [that] could mess with my classes or sports,” Rodriquez explains. And it’s not as if Denesha doesn’t have a social life outside of her boyfriend and son. “We have a good relationship and trust each other. I still hang out with people and make friends, especially guys, because I grew up with six boys as my cousins and am comfortable having guy friends.”
It’s worth noting that Rodriquez and her boyfriend actually live apart, despite sharing a child. This was a deliberate decision Rodriquez made, in an attempt to focus on her schoolwork. Still, she’s adamant about the importance of her son having a relationship with his father, especially since she didn't have a dad growing up. “I am pretty in love,” she says, “but I’m still not ready for marriage and just want to take things slowly.” In a way, Rodriquez says, having a child and a serious boyfriend has made her somewhat disconnected from her more “traditional freshman” peers — or, at least, perhaps more mature in some regards. In the end, she’s happy she doesn't have to worry about the complexities of Tinder culture or the stress of a new relationship. In fact, the only complaint she expressed was that she and her boyfriend were having, well, too much sex. Still, despite the complications and distractions of juggling a healthy relationship, motherhood, school, and sports, Rodriquez is determined to excel at all of it — and to someday return to San Carlos Apache Nation with the know-how and power to make a difference for the tribe.