Dream Big: Kely Rodriguez is a future CPA who is making dreams come true
Feature By Marcia Tillett-Zinzow
Kely Rodriguez is a student with a plan—one she’s had since she was 9 years old. That’s when she decided she would someday be an accountant. In December, she’ll graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point with dual degrees in accounting and business administration and the 150 credit hours needed to take the CPA Exam and eventually become a licensed CPA.
Of course, obstacles come with every long-term plan, and Kely has encountered some major ones. Nevertheless, she persists because it’s not just her future at stake; it could also be the future of others in her home country of Honduras.
“It sounds silly, but I always liked to dress up,” Kely laughed. “When I was 8 or 9 years old, I would see the accountants going to and from the bank dressed in their business suits, and I said, ‘Oh, I want to be an accountant so I can look like them!’”
Then her older brother enrolled at a private university and majored in accounting. Kely saw the homework projects he was working on and took an interest. Inspired by her brother, when she got to high school and had to choose an area of concentration, she chose accounting. Had she not come to the United States to attend college, Kely’s accounting education would have been completed in high school. She describes what her career path would have looked like:
“Once you graduate from high school, you take a long exam—nothing like the CPA exam, but long—to make sure you have the skills needed to become an accountant. Then you go to the Institute of Accountants and get your certification, which is your license and your seal; and every time you do a job, you stamp it with your seal to certify it.”
Coming to the United States
Kely first came to the U.S. in 2010 as a participant in the Scholarships for Education and Economic Development (SEED) program, sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development and designed and administered by Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.* The program required participants to complete two years of college courses and then return home, where they would use what they learned to make a positive difference in their home countries.
When she left Honduras to come here, Kely came into a family she didn’t know in a country she’d never been to and a state she’d never heard of—and she didn’t speak any English. In addition, coming from a family-oriented culture made it a tough goodbye.
“My family was freaking out,” Kely said. “They didn’t know where I was going, what it would be like there or who I would be with. There were two other students from Honduras, but I didn’t know them. And I didn’t know anything about my host family, even though they knew all about me.”
When she arrived in the states, the sea of families waiting for their students at Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee was intimidating. “But then I saw my family,” Kely said. “I knew them because they were holding this huge sign with my name and my country’s flag on it, and I just blocked out everything else.”
Her host family, the Wissmuellers, live in Wausau, so Kely was enrolled at Northcentral Technical College (NTC) for her two years of study in the SEED program. Because there was no accounting degree program, she majored in small business management. And when she wasn’t studying, she was performing community service—300 hours, in fact, over the two years.
In 2012, Kely went back home to Honduras.
Readjusting to Honduras
Returning home to San Nicolas was almost as difficult as leaving it. “It was really hard to leave my family here,” Kely said. “They are so amazing, and I didn’t know if I would ever see them again.”
Going back to Honduras also brought another period of adjustment, as Kely went from having everything she needed here to having essentially nothing back home. While she was happy to be with her family again, she had to leave them after a couple of months to find a job in the city—because that’s where the jobs are. She and her friend Rubidia (also a SEED student) moved to San Pedro Sula, considered the industrial capitol of Honduras, found jobs at a manufacturing company and rented an apartment. They were making $300 a month and paying $85 for rent.
“We didn’t even have a stove for the first two months, and when we did get one, it was a little two-burner stove,” Kely said. “We were using our suitcases as a table, and our bed was a mattress on the floor that we both slept on. But we were just thankful to have a job because so many people don’t.”
Other expenses included $100-plus for taxi fares to and from work and a monthly tax of $25. Called a “war tax,” the $25 is a fee residents have to pay the gangs just to live there. Law enforcement corruption is a contributing factor. “The police can’t do anything,” Kely said.
Taking a taxi to and from work was expensive. There were some days they would skip a meal just so they could pay the taxi. But it was the safest way for Kely and her friend to get to and from work.
“San Pedro Sula is one of the most violent places in the world,” Kely said, and the company they worked for was in one of the least safe, gang-controlled neighborhoods. One taxi driver eventually refused to pick them up. The next driver they found would pray over them every day for their safety.
Kely stayed at the manufacturing company for seven months and then went home to San Nicolas again, where she found work at Child Fund International, a nonprofit agency she had volunteered for as a teen.
Back to the states
In 2015, Kely returned to the U.S. to visit her American family in Wausau. During her visit, they suggested she apply to UW-Stevens Point because it had a lot to offer and was close enough for her to come home on weekends. Because she would be able to transfer many of her NTC credits, she majored in business administration.
One day, one of her accounting professors—Dr. Ruixue Du—took her aside and, because she was doing so well in her class, asked if she was an accounting major. Kely said no, and that’s when she discovered she could have a dual major. She had not wanted to take on a second degree because of the cost to her host family, who are paying her tuition. But Dr. Du told her it would not be any additional cost.
“You mean I can do that?” Kely asked. And she could, so she did.
She also started the campus’s first accounting club with the help of another accounting instructor, Bo DeDeker, and two other students. In addition, last year Kely was treasurer of the International Club; a leader in a program called Tea & Talk, sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship; a WICPA Ambassador; a Becker Ambassador and recipient of the WICPA’s 2018 Student Excellence Award.
While she was scheduled to graduate in 2019, Kely took heavy loads each semester and will graduate ahead of schedule this December. She plans to take a CPA Exam study course in the spring, and the Institute of Management Accountants recently gave her a Certified Management Accountant scholarship. “I will need to decide which certification to get first,” she said.
Kely’s ultimate goal is to be employed by a public accounting firm (hopefully, one of the Big Four), work hard and be successful so she can help the people of her country. Considering the strength, courage and drive that has carried her this far, it’s very likely she’ll succeed.
Making a Difference
Kely is passionate about helping the people in her country. She’s been serving her community since she was 12 years old, when she started volunteering for Child Fund International, a local nonprofit in her hometown of San Nicolas, Honduras. After she left her job at the manufacturing company, she went to work for the nonprofit. Because she had experience and was fluent in English, they soon gave her a promotion. “It was a big responsibility,” she said, “but I loved it because I could see the difference we were making in the families’ lives.”
The experience was an epiphany for Kely. “My childhood was pretty hard,” she said, “and I didn’t have everything. But I saw that there are even worse situations and that you can make an impact.” So she and her friend Wendy—who started volunteering with her at age 12—put their heads together and started a charitable program called Give With Joy. “We are both big dreamers,” Kely said, “and we just knew that we could do this.”
They began collecting used clothing and toys for children in need in the outlying villages. They even set aside a percentage of their salaries to buy new clothes and shoes for them. At Christmastime 2013, the two took what they had gathered to the villages, where poverty is so severe that many children have never received a gift or a new set of clothes.
“In our culture, there is a tradition of wearing new clothes and shoes on Christmas and New Year’s,” Kely said. “We were grateful for the used things people donated, but we wanted the children to have new clothes and shoes to wear.”
While she felt good about giving clothing and toys to the children, last year Kely decided she wanted to do something more sustainable. So she started soliciting donations to go toward buying bicycles for the children.
“It’s like the proverb about giving a man a fish or teaching him to fish,” she said. “Many children have to walk between one and three hours to get to the nearest school. If they have a bike, it will be easier for them, and they’ll get home early enough to help the family and go to work.”
Kely said most children from the villages work on the coffee plantations picking coffee beans.
The two founders of Give With Joy will continue setting aside a percentage of their incomes for their charity, and they hope that soon, in addition to bikes for the kids, they’ll also be buying school supplies and uniforms. No doubt, their generosity will continue putting smiles on the faces and hope in the hearts of children in the villages.
“There is so much need there,” Kely said. “Everywhere you look, there is need. So any tiny, little thing you do can make a difference.”
*The SEED program officially ended in 2015 after 28 years of supporting economic development by empowering youth leaders from under-served areas throughout Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.