Alumni Spotlight: Andrea Rodríguez Panagiotopoulos

After graduating high school in Venezuela, Andrea was given the choice to study in America or vacation with her friends.

picture of Andrea Rodriguez at work
Andrea Rodríguez Panagiotopoulos
Andrea Rodríguez Panagiotopoulos

Andrea and her family chose to focus on her future. Years later, she reflects on her experiences at Rice’s Intensive English Program and how the United States taught her about culture, diversity, and creating memories.

Why did you decide to study in the USA?

“This was a tricky decision. It’s always been a priority for my family that my brother and I would learn English very well. When I was in my senior year in high school, the decision came to be either I went to the prom trip to Punta Cana with all my friends, or I would go to Houston, where I had an aunt, I could stay with, and study English for 6 months at Rice. Me being the brat 17-year-old I was, I obviously wanted to go to the trip, but my parents were very adamant in prioritizing my English education. This is something I am extremely grateful to this day because that experience has opened multiple doors for me, and I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for this decision.”

How did you choose your intensive English program? Please mention such factors as location, reputation, special programs offered. What attracted you to your particular school? Why is it a special place?

“In my case a key factor was having my aunt living in the area. She helped us research different options, and we ended up going with Rice because of the price and the opportunity to be in a university setting, rather than attending a school or academy solely for English.”

What do you like best about studying here?

“I liked many things about Rice, but particularly the professors and the diversity. I had never been exposed to so many different nationalities and cultures, and the professors were very experienced and amazing human beings. I’m still in touch with some of them, more than 14 years later!”

Andrea with classmates and one of her teachers at a local Houston museum
Andrea with classmates and one of her teachers at a local Houston museum

What do you miss most about home?

“The beach, for sure! But also having somewhere I can go back to and have my family, my friends, and my memories in one place.”

How long have you been studying here? How has your English improved?  How has this program helped you to handle future study at a U.S. university?

“I went to Rice for 7 months. Although I had studied English pretty much my entire life back home, this definitely took me a step further. So much so, that when I went back home, I took my first job ever teaching English to kids and teens.”

Andrea with a classmate on the Rice University campus
Andrea with a classmate on the Rice University campus

What was your biggest surprise about U.S. life and education?

“I remember having a lot of cultural shocks. Latin people are very friendly, open, and physical touch and closeness is commonly used in all settings, so I had to adjust and understand other people’s customs and boundaries. I was also very surprised about how big everything was (from food portions to distances). Everything truly is bigger in Texas!”

... your biggest disappointment?

“After I finished the program, I had to go back home and go to college there because I couldn’t afford school in the States. After graduating college, I was able to get an internship that became a job in Washington DC.”

How have you handled:

... language differences?

“With humor! And not taking anything personal. There’s a lot of beauty in understanding other accents, slangs, and cultures. Not only of the US, but that of all the immigrants that make up this country.”

  ... finances?

“With endless sacrifice, particularly from my parents. I couldn’t have done it with the support of my aunt, who allowed me to stay with her and guided me every step of the way. It’s key to be organized and smart with money. To this day, the thing my mom repeats to me the most is: “you’ve got to save money, you’ve got to save, you’ve got to save!”

 ... adjusting to a different educational system?

“Understanding, accepting, and embracing the differences. It’s very easy to compare to what we already know, but once you surrender and accept to play by different rules, there is so much room for enjoyment, learning and bringing a different perspective to everything you do. Your previous experiences are not only valid but enrich your perspectives and the inputs and knowledge you can share with others.”

 How easy or difficult is making friends in the USA?

In my experience it was easy, because I’ve always been surrounded by mostly international people, so everyone is mostly very interested in getting to know you and learn about your country/culture. From my time in the US, I made probably my best friendships and I still carry them with me to this day.

Andrea speaking at workWhat are your career goals? How is your U.S. education relevant to your personal goals and to the needs of your country?

 “At the moment, my aim is to keep growing within the international development field and hopefully secure a fixed-term position with the United Nations or a similar organization. My education in the US, particularly my master’s helped me tremendously in getting the job I currently have. So, my experience in the US has definitely and irrefutably shaped who I am both personally and professionally, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”

 What is your advice to other students from your country who are considering studying English in the USA?

 “If they have the possibility, definitely do it! Be open to the experience and soak in everything: the good, the bad and the ugly. Don’t get caught up in comparisons and the negative, and make sure you always ask for help and advice. I think we come from a culture of fear of failing and we tend to expect “no” for an answer often. The thing I like about the US the most is that if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll eventually get where you want to be! And when it comes to learning English, since this is a country of immigrants, most likely the people you’ll encounter are or went through similar experiences than you did.”

Andrea has done an outstanding job of achieving her dreams. After completing high school, Andrea completed her Intensive English study and returned to Venezuela, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communication, specializing in Journalism at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas.

She then returned to the United States to serve as in intern and later as a program officer for the Organization for American States in Washington D.C.  In 2022, Andrea earned her Master of Arts in Global Policy from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C. She is now an Associate Program Management Officer for the United Nations in Madrid.