Arlington High grad gets full-ride scholarship from Bill Gates’ foundation

Posted Wednesday, May. 22, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Derek Rodriguez broke into a happy dance last month in a corridor at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport as he and other members of the Arlington High School Band waited to board a flight to New York.

His classmates and fellow passengers looked on with amusement.

“I just basically said, ‘I now have my entire college career and all my expenses paid off,’” Rodriguez recalled. “They said, Is that even possible?”

Rodriguez’s mother, Claudia Valdez, had just called to tell him he had won a scholarship — a really big scholarship.

The two-year drum major and saxophone player is one of only 1,000 students nationwide who will have their college tuition paid in full through graduate school and beyond by the Gates Millennium Scholars Program.

He plans to attend Texas State University in San Marcos with a goal of becoming a pediatric oncologist. He was inspired by a Fort Worth cancer specialist, Dr. Paul Bowman, who Rodriguez says saved his life at age 8.

Rodriguez had rhabdomyosarcoma, a type of cancer that affects immature muscle tissue, bone or connective tissue.

Though only 400 cases of rhabdomyosarcoma occur each year, Bowman said, it is still the most common soft tissue or muscle cancer in young people.

Doctors at Cook Children’s Medical Center typically see four to six cases per year.

“Derek had a favorable prognosis,” Bowman said. “He discovered the lump himself. It had spread regionally, so it was an intermediate prognosis. He had one year of intensive chemotherapy and also radiation.”

Rodriguez’s treatments were “quite difficult,” Bowman said, involving hospital treatments every few days.

“He did his level best to be normal in between those visits,” Bowman said.

Rodriguez remembers the weariness of seemingly unending office visits and treatments.

“When I was diagnosed with cancer, I had to go see so many specialists,” Rodriguez said. “But Dr. Bowman, he helped me through a lot of things, so from then on I aspired to be a pediatric oncologist like him.”

Bowman still sees Rodriguez annually for a checkup.

“Obviously he has done well,” he said. “There are no obvious latent effects of the disease.”

Bowman is medical director of the Life After Cancer program at Cook Children’s, as well as professor and chairman of the department of pediatrics at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.

“Especially in our cancer survivorship program, we’re always looking for role models like Derek who not only survive but flourish,” Bowman said.

“It just shows you that a person’s circumstances may not be optimal,” he said, “but you can chart your course and overcome obstacles and make right your path to happiness.”

Rodriguez said he also aspires to become a successful author.

“I would like to write my own book or a novel,” he said. “I’ve been typing up manuscripts ever since I was little.”

The Gates Millennium Scholars Program, established in 1999, was initially funded by a $1 billion grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Candidates must be minority, academically advanced and planning to study computer science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health or general sciences.

Rodriguez, whose current class ranking is 93rd among 660 Arlington High School seniors, applied for 40 scholarships and has received six, earning $8,500 before the Gates Millennium Scholarship, which he learned about from a website and applied online.

“I thought, ‘I’ll apply for it but there’s no way in this world,’” he said. “But it didn’t hurt to try.”

Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657 Twitter: @shirljinkins

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