At Penn State Abington, his door is open

Jose Rodriguez watches his runners at Penn State Abington. Rodriguez is both director of intercultural affairs and the cross-country coach. "Yes, he's Hispanic. Yes, he's gay," says his boss. "But it's a general connection to students. He just has that charisma."
Jose Rodriguez watches his runners at Penn State Abington. Rodriguez is both director of intercultural affairs and the cross-country coach. "Yes, he's Hispanic. Yes, he's gay," says his boss. "But it's a general connection to students. He just has that charisma." (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 30, 2012

For a man whose mission has been to make a college campus more open and accepting of difference, Jose Rodriguez's office is exactly as it should be.

In cramped Room 208 of the Lares Building at Penn State Abington, he is pleasantly besieged. On the couch, a Latina from Philadelphia studies with a freshman who immigrated three years ago from Saudi Arabia. A Muslim student drops by to borrow a prayer rug. The parade in and out is ceaseless.

Unruffled by the commotion around him, Rodriguez types e-mail correspondence for yet another event that he - both the director of intercultural affairs and the men's and women's cross-country track coach - is putting together. Throughout, the phone beckons.

"I walk by and think, 'How can he get his work done?' " said Gale Siegel, senior director of student affairs and Rodriguez's boss. "But he thrives in it. He connects to all students. Yes, he's Hispanic. Yes, he's gay. But it's a general connection to students. He just has that charisma."

Abington is among the most diverse of Penn State's 20 campuses, and Rodriguez is a chapter unto himself in that history. Hired 17 years ago, he was among the first openly gay staff members there, and in 1997 became founding adviser to the campus chapter of the Friends, Lesbian and Gay Student Association.

"I wanted to be accepted for who I am," said Rodriguez, 45. "If you can't be who you truly are in a place of higher education, whether you agree or not, where else are you going to have that open dialogue?"

This month, he helped set up an appearance by transgender advocate Chaz Bono for National Coming Out Day, observed Oct. 11 as part of Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender History Month. Meanwhile, he arranged the visit of a Tibetan Buddhist monk, and organized the college's hosting operation for the North Eastern Athletic Conference Cross Country championships on Saturday.

He is a campus icon, said senior Austin Lichtman, but not solely because of the events he orchestrates. Rodriguez is the welcoming shoulder when college life weighs heavy, the no-nonsense nudge when grades sink.

On campus, he is in constant motion: chatting with students, giving directions to a puzzled visitor, introducing a guest speaker. He has a taut runner's body that reflects the athleticism that helped him earn track and field medals at the Gay Games in Amsterdam (1998), Sydney (2002), and Chicago (2006).

His office is packed with objects brought back from trips to places as distant as Thailand, Egypt, and Pakistan. Mostly, though, he must also maneuver around students to get to his desk. He has been known to sternly say, "If you want to be in my office, you have to have a good GPA."

Rodriguez grew up the elder of two boys on Long Island. His father worked in the aluminum industry; his mother drove a school bus.

"There weren't many people of color in our neighborhood, so [our parents] constantly reminded us people were going to judge us," he said. "We were an example, whether we liked it or not."

At Allegheny College, in the northwestern Pennsylvania town of Meadville, he studied economics. He attributes his scholastic and sports successes there to a track coach and a dean who encouraged him when he struggled academically and almost dropped out.

By then, he said, he had strong feelings he was gay, but the realization didn't crystallize until after graduation.

At first, his mother was troubled by the revelation, wondering if she had "mothered" him too much. The conversation with his father was memorable, but for a different reason.

"It was one of the first times that my father told me - as an adult - that he loved me," Rodriguez said.

Soon after, Rodriguez gave up a job in banking for a career in education. He wanted to be the same kind of resource for college students that his college track coach had been for him.

He got a master's in education administration in 1993 at the University of Pennsylvania and, two years later, was hired at Penn State Abington.

He was out from the start.

Early on, a few "didn't understand or care to understand or work with you," he said. Now, "it's not an issue."

As a coach, Rodriguez is a relentless shouter, with clapping for punctuation.

"Let's go, ladies! Drive your knees!"

"Pump your arms - to the side - not across. Let's go!"

Rodriguez once aspired to be the president of a small liberal arts college, but says he's content to be what he is - almost.

His secret desire is to host a TV travel program - one showcasing the world's diversity.

That, Rodriguez said, "is my dream job."


Contact Kristin E. Holmes

at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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