CLEARWATER — Marien Elizabeth, 45, knows all too well about poverty, despair and discrimination.
Someday, she hopes to do something about it.
Her first step: Graduating from St. Petersburg College July 19 with a bachelor's in international business.
Soon she'll take the second, as she heads for the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, where she will pursue a master's degree in diplomacy.
The school has close ties with the United Nations and she hopes to one day work there as a diplomat.
It's a dream — some might have said an impossible one — the Hispanic mother of four has held for a long time.
Her children, ages 11 to 21, have witnessed their single mother's struggles to stay in school and apparently are better students for it. Three of them have won PRIDE awards for academic excellence.
"We're all so proud of her," said daughter Danielle Gamble, 21, of Clearwater. "She spends every moment when she's not at work or school studying. When times get tough and money gets low, she doesn't quit, she just works harder."
On Monday, Elizabeth told a group gathered in the Women on the Way (WOW) Challenge Center that as a diplomat, she would focus on women's and children's issues.
"When you change a woman's life, you change a country," she said. "If they have their needs taken care of — food, clothing and education — they can be good citizens and they can raise good citizens."
WOW is a resource and support center on SPC's Clearwater campus for students with housing, childcare and financial issues. Many in the program are older, single mothers returning to school.
WOW offers workshops, information about scholarships and financial aid, and a boutique stocked with free clothing donated by Macy's.
Elizabeth, a Clearwater resident, is one of their greatest success stories.
"Marien is the first WOW student to get her bachelor's degree at St. Petersburg College and go directly into a master's," said Sharon Coil, the program's director, as they celebrated Elizabeth's graduation with presents and bagels.
Coil also said Elizabeth has won more scholarships than any of their other students, a total of more than $24,000.
"You don't get that many unless you're something pretty special," Coil said.
Elizabeth has a part-time job on campus, is a community volunteer, has won numerous awards and carries a 3.98 grade point average, all while facing many obstacles, including the fact she doesn't own a car.
Another, she said, was her last name: Rodriguez.
She said she has been the victim of discrimination because of her Hispanic heritage. Her mother is from Spain; her father is from Puerto Rico. When she tried to rent an apartment or get a job, she said she sometimes felt the sting.
She soon learned that if she dropped the surname, she'd get farther.
"It's not that I'm not proud of my Hispanic heritage, I am," she said. "It's just that it allowed me to get things in life I thought I was being held back from."
Born in Queens, NY, she attended college after graduating from high school but dropped out after Danielle was born. She tried to return a few more times, but there were always roadblocks, primarily the financial, mental and physical strains of raising a family.
After witnessing the Sept. 11 attacks from a windowsill on Broadway, she left New York City and moved to Florida. She took some classes at SPC and just when her future seemed the bleakest, she discovered WOW.
"WOW helped me find myself," she said. "Sharon convinced me I could do it."
She took advantage of all the program had to offer. But she didn't just take — she gave back. In addition to serving as president of WOW for two years, she was involved with student government at SPC, co-chaired fundraisers and volunteered for food drives.
"She's just the best," said her son Brandon Gamble, 18. "I hope I can marry someone like her, but she's one of a kind."
Elizabeth encouraged the women in the room to volunteer, network, take challenging classes, be confident and never give up.
"You have to allow yourself to become the best person you can be," she said.
But it takes sacrifice to succeed, Elizabeth warned.
"Take the oath of poverty," she said. "There will be no movies, no going out to eat. Focus on school; study all you can. Life will be difficult but bearable because you have a plan."
Reach Terri Bryce Reeves at firstname.lastname@example.org