Gabriela Rodriguez is the recipient of the 2021 Jorge and Darlene Perez Excellence Award.
The award is given to graduating FIU Honors College students who have excelled academically and also demonstrated leadership and service in making a difference in South Florida. Rodriguez plans to use the $10,000 award to help pay for graduate school at Yale University.
A lover of the outdoors, Rodriguez grew up in Miami admiring its vibrant skies and tropical landscapes. From her backyard to the Everglades, she was always exploring and finding something new. It wasn’t until the day she volunteered to plant trees in a park that her perspective on the environment changed. She realized trees and plants are not just here to enjoy, but that they are imperative for the health of this planet and people.
“I fell in love with the way the members leading the community service project were educating us about the environment, and I felt like I was having an impact on society even though it was a small restoration,” Rodriguez said. “That moment of seeing an area that was sad before it turned into something beautiful was what sparked a passion in me.”
Rodriguez has come a long way from planting trees.
While double majoring in environmental studies and sustainability in the environment with a minor in communications, she was the lead outreach and education intern at FIU’s Office of University Sustainability. Rodriguez worked closely with students to increase environmental awareness on campus and hosted several environmental events for the student body.
As an Honors College student, she witnessed first-hand how people from other countries deal with environmental issues by studying abroad in Costa Rica. There, she studied ecotourism and learned how locals integrate environment, education and sustainability into their lifestyles. Aside from fun activities like zip-lining and river rafting, the trip consisted of active educational activities such as touring the rain forest, visiting a sustainable farm and learning about renewable energy systems.
“Seeing a lot of the environmental concepts that I studied in the textbook being applied on a country level in front of my eyes was really inspiring.”
Off-campus, Rodriguez started working with the Cleo Institute—the leading climate change nonprofit in Miami. She is currently a program coordinator developing and managing Cleo’s youth programs, bringing climate change education and advocacy skills to high school students across Miami-Dade County. Her main goal in this position is to educate students, especially those in underserved high schools, and give them the right tools they need to call upon local government officials to discuss environmental issues.
Rodriguez is an activist herself and has worked closely with climate justice groups in Miami like the Sunrise Movement and Gen Cleo. She attends government meetings and speaks to elected officials about climate change in Miami. With the Cleo Institute, Rodriguez is also the co-host of a podcast called House on Fire where she interviews local and national climate leaders about different intersections on climate change, what affects it and how people can get involved.
“Gabriela embodies the qualities we seek for and value in those participating in this award – dedication, focus and a genuine passion for serving their community,” said Jorge M. Perez.
Darlene Perez added, “We wish to inspire all students to use Gabriela’s story as motivation to positively make a difference in their city in a way they can enjoy and be proud of.”
This Fall, Rodriguez will be attending Yale’s School of Environment to pursue a master’s of environment management. She plans on returning to Miami and playing a role in helping with issues on climate change, inequality, housing and education.
“In 10 years, I hope to see an equitable, just, sustainable Miami,” Rodriguez said. “I hope that Miami leads the way as the city that tackled the climate crisis and is an example for other coastal communities around the world.”