FIU Truman Scholar recipient aspires to pay it forward

by Nykeema Radway

As an eight-year-old, Wendy Ruiz began working as her mom’s assistant in Sunday school. This experience stuck with her as she got older. When she witnessed students in her Homestead community struggling with homework and parents unable to help due to their own lack of schooling, she began tutoring them. Serving her community led to future ambitions in public service.

FIU senior and Truman Scholarship winner Wendy Ruiz

FIU senior and Truman Scholarship winner Wendy Ruiz

Ruiz, now a senior political science major at FIU, is still helping provide opportunities and resources for underprivileged members of the Homestead community. She dedicates her time to working with a non-profit organization, WeCount, to teach Spanish and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) to farmworkers. Some of the workers speak their own dialect but don’t speak English and Spanish.

Ruiz’s work in the community as well as her academic achievements have earned her a 2016 Florida Truman Scholarship.

“Miss Ruiz has demonstrated that she is a mature and responsible student who has not only a great academic potential but strong ideals for social justice, human rights and public service,” said Moira Letora, assistant director of FIU’s Student Support Services Program (SSS). “To say that Wendy is just an active student at SSS and the FIU-Homestead community would be an understatement.”

Named after former president Harry S. Truman, the Truman scholarship provides support for student leaders who are dedicated to a future in public service, aiding in the continuation of their aspirations. The Truman Scholarship Foundation grants students a $30,000 scholarship for a graduate education, mentorship opportunities and an 8-week internship experience.

“Truman looks for students who want to be change-makers,” said Rebekah Schulze, former director of the Office of Scholarships & Fellowships, who nominated Ruiz for the Truman scholarship. “Wendy had already done that. I knew she had what Truman would be looking for.”

In the 2016 competition, Ruiz was the only Truman scholarship recipient selected for the state of Florida and one of only 54 winners across the country. Humble and quiet, one would never know what an amazingly strong leader she is and how much she’s accomplished at such a young age.

“I think one of the most important things the scholarship brings about is how can you impact your community and how can you help build them up,” Ruiz said.

As a daughter of farmworkers, Ruiz advocates for higher salaries among farmworkers as well as better working conditions. She also is leading the drive to motivate them to get their degrees and become future professionals; she sees that a lot of the farmworkers continue working on the farm and don’t aim to obtain a college degree. She understands that for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, finding resources can be difficult.

“I have always been driven and focused on working with first generation college students because even the term ‘first generation’ means that we go into a system where we have no idea how to transition from one place to another,” she said. “It is important for a person to acknowledge the great things they may not see in themselves. I want to inspire people to know that you can go out and get a college degree, not only for yourself, but to come back and help your community.”

A first generation college student, Ruiz found the transition into college difficult. She transferred to FIU from Miami Dade College, where the Student Support Services Program provided the assistance she needed to succeed. The SSS program provides support for about 175 students each year in the area of academic development, assistance with basic college requirements and motivates students toward the successful completion of their bachelor degree. Ruiz credits the SSS staff for making her feel at home and a part of something. The advisors were also central to her becoming a 2016 Florida Truman Scholarship recipient.

As Ruiz, 24, prepares for graduation, her goals remain steadfast: change the educational system where she can be involved in first-generation students’ academic process to make it less challenging for them to obtain degrees.

After graduation, Ruiz will start her eight-week internship in Washington, D.C., with other Truman Scholars. She will be working in the Department of Education and hopes to teach math to middle school students.