As kid growing up in Grand Island, Nebraska, Rodrigo Venegas watched his dad work hard running his own roofing business, and it sparked an interest in construction.
“I started working for my dad when I was about 13, running around, picking up the trash, because I was still little,” Venegas said. “I’d watch him run his crews, and he’s someone you look up to because he knows his stuff, and I knew I wanted to be like that as a boss or superintendent.”
Venegas is leading his own crew now as a superintendent for Chief Construction, a subsidiary of Chief Industries. He’s working full-time while he prepares to graduate May 14 with a degree in construction management from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
It’s an accomplishment he didn’t see for himself growing up.
“Graduation was a goal that I didn’t expect to have. I didn’t know if it was for me, but I’m happy I did it,” Venegas said. “Dropping out was never an option. When I signed up for school, I had a mentality that I needed to see it through because otherwise I was selling myself short.”
As a high school student, Venegas wanted to serve his country. He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps as early as he could. It was only when he left the Corps after four years and two deployments that he started to wonder what he was going to do next. He realized he had an opportunity that his parents, who both immigrated from Mexico, never had. Through the G.I. Bill, college was mostly paid for, if he was willing to put in the effort.
And effort is something Venegas has in spades — he’d picked up his dad’s work ethic — but the transition was still difficult.
“I came to college behind the curve,” Venegas said. “I wasn’t ready for school when I started because I’d been out of school for a while. Getting back was a culture shock and it took me a little bit to get spun back up.”
Fortunately, Venegas found a community of fellow veterans and service members through the university’s Military and Veteran Success Center, and quickly became friends and roommates with a fellow veteran he’d met briefly on a deployment to Japan.
“(The Military and Veteran Success Center) helped me a lot because it is a tough transition,” he said. “It took me about a semester to start to fit in, and be comfortable in civilian life and school life.”
He became a leader and mentor on campus through the Nebraska chapter of the Student Veterans of America, in which he served as vice president and president. He also directed the Things They Carry Ruck March in 2020, when the event was upended by COVID-19. The ruck traditionally covers the 322 miles between Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium and Memorial Stadium in Nebraska, and veterans take shifts in groups to cover the miles, carrying 20-pound backpacks to remember those lost to suicide, but the pandemic shifted it to an online competition where participants logged their own miles. It meant a lot to Venegas to continue the tradition in some way, especially since he’d lost a few friends to suicide after their time in the service.
Between classes and responsibilities with the veterans’ group, Venegas was busy, but he decided early in his university career to gain as much knowledge inside and outside the classroom as he could. He spent summers in a different states, interning for construction firms. During the school year, he took jobs for local companies to broaden his skills.
“I’ve been consistently working since I started school,” Venegas said. “My goal throughout school has been to gain experience in as many different aspects and trades of construction as possible. It’s been hard, and I don’t have much of a social life right now, but it’s a small sacrifice for a short amount of time.
“Each experience has been able to shape me and give me confidence to be able to talk with the guys on the job site, because I’m usually one of the youngest guys on a job. With my military experience and my industry experience, I carry myself differently than you would expect, for someone my age just finishing school.”
Venegas joined Chief Construction as an intern in December 2021, and was quickly hired full-time to oversee a job site in Lincoln while finishing his last nine credit hours. After graduation, he’ll move his belongings back to Grand Island, where he recently purchased a house, and will continue his career with Chief, which is headquartered there. In 10 years, he said he’d like to be overseeing multi-million-dollar projects.
“I wanted to move back to Grand Island because I’ve been gone long enough,” he said. “It’ll be nice to be closer to my dad and sisters again.”
And what does he tell people when they inquire about pursuing higher education, something he wasn’t sure about himself?
“College is all about the effort you put in — that was the lesson for me,” Venegas said. “I felt terrified. I thought I was going to fail. Push through it, and eventually you’re going to make it. You just have to get over the hump. It’s true, college puts a lot of mental stress on you, but you can overcome it. There are resources. You’re given the tools to succeed.”