USF student's billboard-sized smile has dramatic backstory

Andrea Rodriguez Gomez featured on USF billboard

TAMPA - Drivers, lots of them, pass her every day. 18,000 people every week have gotten to know her smile.

"She just maintains a positive outlook.  If you see her anywhere on campus, in the library, in the gym, she's smiling," said Assistant USF Volleyball Coach Nikki Shade.

USF volleyball player Andrea Carolina Rodriguez Gomez had no idea a casual candid snapped in her Florida politics class by a USF photographer would end up on a USF billboard on Fowler Avenue in Tampa. She has just come to class after practice.

"My friend messages me on Facebook and let's me know that, hey, I think there's a billboard with your face on it. You should check it out," she said while laughing.

The warm grin has been a USF advertising success, but her back story is even more interesting.

"My dad, he's been a law professor for 27 years in Venezuela. He was one of the most trusted people in the military. He's just an exceptional, amazing role model," said Rodriguez Gomez.

Her dad also spoke out in public against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

When she was just 10 years old living in Venezuela, violent protests erupted. Chavez was removed from the Presidency for two days, throwing her family's life into upheaval.

"After the whole ordeal, Chavez had to sign and write his own resignation of the Presidency and give it to my father," she said. Her father handed over the resignation to a priest, she says, for safe keeping. It was a turn of events that would prove dangerous for her father and her family when Chavez regained power.

Rodriguez Gomez's family had to flee the country.

"No one knows what happened behind doors, but Chavez ended up coming back to the Presidency and my dad was being looked for.  The whole family was in danger," she said.

Her family sought political asylum and moved to Miami.

Now Rodriguez Gomez is the picture of the American dream. The junior who plays middle blocker is hoping to make USF's Athlete Hall of Fame one day.

No wonder she's smiling on the billboard. 

"I want them to feel as though anything is possible and USF is full of opportunity," she said.

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