A common thread of purpose-driven work is woven through Vanessa Rodriguez’s professional life. She has worked for various nonprofit organizations throughout her career and will celebrate her 10th anniversary at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in October. “My husband calls me a professional humanitarian and I agree! I want to make a difference in people’s lives,” says Vanessa, an event production manager in the Office of Development, where she works to enhance donor relationships to help fund cancer research.
Vanessa works within the Planned Giving team to oversee MSK’s Health Education Seminar program, which is designed to help donors — many of whom are former patients — learn about the latest advances at MSK. “When I meet a donor who says, ‘I’m alive and here today because MSK saved my life,’ it brings it all home,” she says. “I’m proud of the work we are doing and the positive impact that we’re making in the lives of our patients.”
Vanessa also finds time to co-lead the steering committee for the Black, Latino, Asian, and Multicultural (BLAM) Employee Resource Network, which aims to move the needle in terms of equality, diversity, and inclusion efforts at MSK.
“Having been raised Catholic, it was ingrained in me to give back to others through money, relationships, or time,” she says. “MSK has given me the opportunity to do that professionally, and I find it very rewarding.”
First-Generation Dominican American
Born and raised in Queens, New York, with her two siblings, Vanessa says her desire to make a positive impact in the lives of others also stems from her family’s immigrant experience and her upbringing as a first-generation Dominican American.
Vanessa’s parents were both born in the Dominican Republic (DR) but left their beloved Caribbean island in search of a better life in the United States. Despite their limited resources, they landed in Queens with a tremendous determination to work hard and succeed.
Her mother immigrated to New York City in the early 1960s as a young teenager. Not knowing a word of English, she found herself navigating high school in the city during a time when the public schools offered few support services. “She is an inspiration to me because despite obstacles, she persevered and ended up working as an executive director of International Financial Services at JP Morgan Chase,” Vanessa says.
Her father came to this country a decade later, in his early twenties. He worked as a banquet waiter for many of New York’s iconic venues, including the Windows on the World restaurant atop one of the original World Trade Center towers, where he once took Vanessa and her siblings to enjoy the majestic city views.
Like many immigrants, he sent money back to the DR to help the rest of his family. He grew up in a small fishing town there and loved to fish in his spare time. Vanessa says: “Some of the fondest memories I have from my childhood are of my dad teaching me how to fish at different New York beaches.” She says she also shares his love of merengue, a traditional genre of music in the DR.
Her father died of stomach cancer at the age of 51, while Vanessa was a senior at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She remembers how proud he was knowing that his daughter would be graduating from college in this country. “It was a difficult journey for my family. I often think about everything he and my mom faced in leaving their safe circles to embrace something unknown,” she says. “Knowing everything they sacrificed for me to be where I am today helps put things in perspective.”
Learning to Appreciate Diversity
Vanessa, who identifies as an Afro-Latina, feels blessed to have grown up in the heart of New York City. When she left to attend college in Connecticut, she became painfully aware that it was not the diverse cultural hub she was used to. “It was my first time living away from home and it was challenging at first because I suddenly felt very different from others around me. But I learned to appreciate the differences, connect with people in different ways, and find common ground,” she remembers. “It was a taste of what the larger world is like.”
It’s a lesson that still resonates with Vanessa today, especially in the work she does with BLAM, whose mission is to provide networking opportunities and a platform for employees of color to amplify their voices and share their traditions with the larger MSK family. “It allows me to celebrate so much of not only my Latino heritage, but other ethnicities and cultures as well,” she says.
BLAM has also given her a broader appreciation for the dual challenges that communities of color have faced during the past year, between COVID-19 and a national reckoning with systemic racism, and what people can do to help combat those problems.
“It has provided an avenue for productive dialogues with colleagues to find new pathways to heal and repair,” she explains. “I’ve also been excited to see how MSK leadership has valued BLAM’s feedback in driving more equity and inclusion for underrepresented employee groups,” she adds.
The Meaning of Hispanic Heritage Month
“It’s a beautiful celebration of Latino contributions to culture, music, and traditions in America, and a time to be grateful for everything that our ancestors went through to open new doors and opportunities for us in this country of infinite possibilities,” Vanessa says. “It’s also a chance to reflect on the powerful influence that the immigrant experience has had, and the fact that their stories are truly woven into the fabric of this country.”
Vanessa was struck by recent news from the US Census that Hispanic/Latinx communities represent one of the fastest-growing minority groups in this country. “I think that speaks volumes about the waves of influence that immigrants are having here, not only for the economy but for the cultural richness that we are adding as well,” she says.
Growing up, Vanessa was fortunate to spend many summers visiting her grandparents in the DR. The immersive experience taught her not to take anything for granted. “I learned Spanish fluently and appreciated the music, food, beaches, and the culture,” she says. “But it’s an underdeveloped country, so seeing things from that perspective, I understood how blessed we were to have the lives that we have had.”
As a mom of two, Vanessa is doing her best to pass on these traditions to her children and help them to learn the language and develop an appreciation for their Dominican heritage. “However, it does take a bigger effort the more generations you are removed from the immigrant experience of your family members,” she says.
One thing they particularly enjoy as a family is attending baseball games. It brings Vanessa back to her childhood growing up in Corona, Queens, just steps away from Shea Stadium.
“We went to many Mets games,” she remembers, adding that Dominican baseball players have dominated the sport over the years. “My parents actually were there in 1986 when the Mets last won the World Series. We’ve got to keep hope alive that maybe one day we can relive that!”