Woman sitting in an office building and smiling.

Overcoming obstacles: A conversation with Yolanda Rodriguez, ASU instructor and U.S. Marine Corps veteran

I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Yolanda Rodriguez about her heritage, her time spent in the U.S. Marine Corps and her path to becoming an instructor and healer. As she tells her story, it is apparent that she has overcome many obstacles, which she has endured with amazing resilience and grace. We can all relate to her story in some way.
Rodriguez was born and raised in Queen Creek, Arizona, when it had one four-way stop sign amid acres of farmland. Her heritage stems from the Yaqui tribe of Mexico, whose land, at one point, sprawled from Mexico up to San Francisco, and across to what is now El Paso, Texas. Her family chose not to live on the reservation; they wanted to forge their own path.
“We were traders, entrepreneurs, raiders, marauders, warriors, linguists and healers,” Rodriguez said. “I really identified with the healing part of my heritage; you know? I grew up in the fields, literally in the fields, cutting onions, picking fruit, boxing fruit, all of that. My dad actually ended up buying an acre-and-a-quarter when I was seven and we built my mom’s house with our own hands.” 
Her mom still lives in that house today.    

Yolanda Rodriguez in military uniform, pictured in black and white
Caption: Yolanda Rodriguez was awarded Marine of the Quarter for the U.S. Marine Corps Recruit Depot in Parris  Island, South Carolina, in 1987. “I competed against an entire base and won,” Rodriguez said. “The tests were focused on history, customs and courtesies, external education, professional development and leadership.”

She continued discussing her heritage and shared how her path was influenced by the Frozen Chosen. The Frozen Chosen was similar to Valley Forge, but during the Korean War. The name originates from a group in the 1st Marine Division that was stranded in the Chosin Reservoir with no supplies for two weeks amid freezing conditions. The division in which her uncle served worked together to ensure the safe, 78-mile withdrawal of 8,000 soldiers. Rodriguez is a part of that lineage. Her father served in World War II and was awarded the Silver Star Medal for his bravery. Rodriguez was influenced by her rich military heritage and it led her to join the U.S. Marine Corps in 1985.

Following a six-year term, she went on pregnancy leave, which was the policy at that time. After having her baby, she was recalled back to active duty and deployed to Desert Storm/Desert Shield to complete her eight-year service term. She then transitioned to the Reserves until 2001, when she was discharged after the stop-loss, or the involuntary extension of a service member's active duty service, was lifted.

Following her discharge, Rodriguez once again began working on her physical fitness to reach military fitness standards and petitioned to return to the Reserves after a 12-year gap in service. After a total of 19 years of service, Rodriguez was released from her duties in December 2017. As she laments about the difficult experiences she endured, Rodriguez still aims to get back into service; this is a testament to her dedication to the U.S. Marine Corps.


Prioritizing education

During her work as a post office employee, she discovered a passion for American Sign Language and enrolled for her Associate in Applied Science in Interpreter Preparation at Phoenix College. This opportunity aligned with her interest in education and led to her certification as a community and educational interpreter for the Deaf, interpreting for youth in educational settings from kindergarten through community college — and for the Deaf in the community at events: from comedy shows, concerts, and doctor’s appointments to whale-watching, snake conventions and Disneyland visits! 

Her dedication to education also shined during her time in the U.S. Marine Corp. She was recognized consistently for gaining a formal education during her active duty years. Rodriguez recalls being honored at several formations for her academic achievements, to encourage her junior Marines to also advance their education. 
While managing military demands, Rodriguez found the time to graduate with another degree — her bachelor’s degree in psychology from ASU. She went on to earn her doctorate degree in naturopathic medicine in 2004 and recently celebrated 20 years as a licensed doctor.
“My family name is Tona which means ‘our mother’ and short for ‘tonantzin’, which means ‘collection of mothers,’ which, roughly translated from Aztec, means ‘healers,’” said Rodriguez, whose background in healing pushed her toward naturopathy.

She put her skills to work as the department chair for the Mind-Body Medicine Program at Sonoran University of Health Sciences. Following that role, she became the clinical director for the naturopathic medical school at Turabo University at Gurabo in Puerto Rico, establishing the clinical program of the fourth naturopathic medical school in the U.S. In 2005, Rodriguez became an instructor at ASU while concurrently teaching alternative medicine at Mesa Community College.

Leveraging her experiences to educate 

Currently, she is a social science faculty member in ASU’s School of Applied Sciences and Arts in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts (CISA) at the Polytechnic campus. In CISA, Rodriguez teaches the popular four-credit iCourse ASB 353: Death and Dying in Cross-Cultural Perspective, and students from all over the world, including military service members, take the course.
“Teaching a class on death and dying and reading 600 student stories on death and dying is a little difficult,” she said.
Despite the difficulties, she sees the course’s value and wants it to grow into something larger with addendums and specializations because, she says, there is an overwhelming demand for this discipline in a wide variety of professions.
When asked about what excites her as a professor, Rodriguez said it’s all about student interaction and feedback. She explains that the course isn’t just about ticking a box and moving on, but offering resources to support current and past students as they process the loss of loved ones.
“It’s about changing people’s lives, changing their perspectives, addressing fears that people have and addressing it in a way that is safe for them to explore their own thoughts and processes in an academic environment,” Rodriguez said.
She adds that both conventional and military students study grief models in the course by analyzing artistic works featuring death and dying through a professional, academic and theoretical lens.
“It’s about understanding the emotionally charged models and applying it in a compassionately humanistic fashion that invokes a humbling degree of life affirmations,” said Rodriguez, whose course has paved the way for students to start support groups.

Personal goals and challenges

Outside of her professional and academic careers, Rodriguez is training to hike the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim this coming spring.
“I dedicate Tuesday mornings to hiking — sometimes 18 to 20 miles on the flat,” she said.
Rodriguez has horses and is a rider, so she also looks forward to adding equine therapy to assist in psychotherapy to her growing list of qualifications. In her spare time, Rodriguez dances at the Phoenix Salsa Studio and hopes to learn swing dancing soon.