Maura Ruiz welcomes them every day in her office at Lewis and Clark High School: dozens of young men and women who desperately need her help.
Many live in a world where hopes and dreams wither in the shadows of poverty and homelessness. They want a chance go to college, but don’t know where to begin.
Ruiz tells them to start by “not being ashamed to ask for help.”
Soon they realize that they came to the right person – someone who can not only help them navigate the complexities of college applications and financial aid, but can look them in the eye and say, “I’ve been there.”
Ruiz has endured stinging poverty, prejudice and personal tragedy – hardships she’d rather not dwell on but uses “for the lens that I can give students,” she said.
It’s an eyeful.
Long before earning a master’s degree and becoming LC’s college prep adviser for the College Success Foundation, Ruiz emigrated from Mexico to the United States at the age of 2 – dressed as a boy and carrying false identification.
Her mother had no ID, so she swam across a river to join the rest of their family of five. It was a reunion that happened only because her father had obtained a green card and worked until he dropped to raise the funds to bring his family to the United States.
Citizenship came a few years later, but Maura’s American dream was deferred by homelessness and hard work in the orchards of the Yakima Valley.
Progress was measured by the size of the family trailer until her father landed a construction job and the Ruizes were able to afford a house.
For Ruiz, a character-defining moment came in the eighth grade. Her older sister had applied for a job at Target but had run away with a boyfriend.
A Target representative was on the phone, seeking to set up an interview.
Ruiz seized the moment. She got the interview and the job. For almost a year, she worked as a cashier for 40 hours a week and once was named Employee of the Month – at the age of 13.
That gig ended when her middle school principal spotted her at the register “and threatened my parents with a CPS call, so I had to quit,” Ruiz said.
Expected to pay for the family’s utility bills, she worked at McDonald’s and a local cherry warehouse until late at night. Ruiz napped more than she slept, usually from 3-6 a.m.
“I skipped school a lot because I was so tired,” Ruiz said.
Somehow, she managed to graduate in 2010 from Eisenhower High School in Yakima with a 3.4 GPA and was accepted to Washington State.
At the same time, the family was joined by one of her mother’s sons from a previous marriage. A few weeks into Ruiz’s freshman year at WSU, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Ruiz dropped out, mainly because she couldn’t justify enjoying the college life while her brother was dying and her family was struggling to pay funeral costs.
For the next two years she worked several jobs while commuting from Yakima to Ellensburg, where she pursued a double major in Spanish and social sciences at Central Washington University.
Her choice of emphasis was unique: a combination of social work, law and justice, and family counseling – which turned out to be the perfect combination for her work at the College Success Foundation.
But there was more work to do. Pursuit of a master’s degree in social work led her to Eastern Washington University – and profound shock.
“Where are all the Latino students?” she asked after arriving in Cheney in 2014.
The answer: “They only go to parties at night. That’s where you can find them.”
Ruiz overcame her shock to not only earn a degree in social work, but also earn practical experience with Child Protection Services in Idaho.
A year later, she landed the job at LC with the College Success Foundation, a nonprofit that provides an integrated system of support to improve educational equity for underserved students.
The work assists students academically, financially, socially and emotionally beginning in middle school and extending into post-college years.
Spokane Public Schools has a College Success Foundation adviser in all five comprehensive high schools, plus Garry, Glover and Shaw middle schools.
“We’re very grateful for the partnership,” said Shannon Demant, the organization’s regional director. She praised the district for allowing the group to connect with students and allowing Ruiz and other advisers “to do the work that they do.”
That work is complicated, and it isn’t defined by the school day.
“I have witnessed firsthand Maura patiently assist parents, with zero English-language skills, complete the complex and confounding Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA),” said Jeff Norton, a college and career readiness specialist who shares an office with Ruiz.
“She has even had to drive parents to the local IRS office to request transcripts of tax returns,” Norton added.
Ruiz does that for 50 seniors and 50 juniors at LC. They are a diverse, challenged group: students of color, English-language learners, and first-generation graduates-to-be.
All are from low-income families. Some are living in foster care or with single parents. Others are at risk of not graduating from high school – let alone thinking about college.
They need hope, but they also need the right touch.
“You have to keep these kids in a cylinder, in the middle,” Ruiz said. “Not too high up in the clouds, but not bottomed out to where they think they can’t do things.
“You start by dispelling the stereotype,” added Ruiz, who felt like an outsider the minute she walked into the doors of LC in fall 2016.
She was a 24-year-old Latina and not part of the LC staff, and her first office was in the basement.
Fellow employees would ask, “What country are you really from?” or compliment her on her English, both of which struck Ruiz as patronizing.
Others told students “to see the brown lady downstairs.”
Ruiz challenged those stereotypes – “I brought the elephant into the room,” she said – but she also found a way to be a bigger presence on campus by coaching volleyball and tennis.
“I try to be as invested as I can in this school,” Ruiz said while wearing an LC volleyball shirt. The sport was her passion as a youth – until her high school coach required all players to enroll in a camp that cost $800.
“But these kids are here because they want to play,” Ruiz said.
Now beginning her fourth year, Ruiz has a second-floor office she shares with Norton. Large windows offer a panorama of Fourth Avenue, Interstate 90, fast-food restaurants and tough streets.
Homeless people regularly amble under the freeway alongside students skipping class – two cautionary tales at once for impressionable teens.
Motivation must come from within, but Ruiz primes the pump.
“I love sitting across from her as she quietly prompts a student making a difficult phone call to a college admissions office or the College Board student services office,” Norton said.
“She helps the student own the process, but is right there to comfort the student during a potentially difficult conversation.”
Those talks usually end with renewed hope for the future.
“That’s what keeps me here,” Ruiz said.
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