My Path from South Central to the University of Southern California
My name is Jose Juan Ruiz, and I am 27 years old. I grew up right here in South Los Angeles, the oldest of four children of Mexican immigrants. Today, I’m graduating with a bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from USC Viterbi. Soon, I’ll be starting a full-time position with Boeing. My USC story probably won’t make the cover of any national newspapers like some others have recently, but I want to share it anyway.
You see, I am a product of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and a low-income minority. Higher education wasn’t something I ever thought about. For me and many of my classmates, our options were to start working to help our families or turn to the streets and live by the street’s codes of gang banging. I knew I wanted to go back to school but I also knew that that I couldn’t.
It’s hard to explain how frustrating it is to have the desire, but none of the training or money to improve your life. I felt like I could see my goal on the other side of a minefield but the only way to stay safe was to not move at all – taking even the first little step forward could end in disaster.
“I felt like I could see my goal on the other side of a minefield but the only way to stay safe was to not move at all.”
Growing up the way I did in LA can be hard. What you hear in rap songs or see in movies, what Nipsey Hussle spoke of in his songs is all real truth for some of us. It’s rare when one of us makes it out and I think about how lucky I am every day.
I eventually ended up working at Target pharmacy with other Hispanics, many of whom had advanced degrees. I realized that if they could pursue higher education, I could too. In 2013 I enrolled in East Los Angeles Community College and placed in the lowest Math and English classes offered. It was humbling to be taking such basic courses, but I swallowed my pride. At ELAC I met two great friends, Yonatan Juarez and Edson Hernandez. They were both from South LA too and studying engineering. Because of them I decided to pursue engineering myself. We didn’t have college-educated parents, or connections for internships, or anyone rooting for us. For the next three years, we were each other’s support system.
In the Fall of 2016, seven years after graduating high school, I was accepted to USC Viterbi as a transfer student. I didn’t think I’d get in, so I never told my family I had applied. The only one who knew was the person who encouraged me the most, my girlfriend Brenda Gudino. My first thought wasn’t joy or excitement, but anxiety. How would I afford it? How will I compete with better connected and better educated peers? I soon realized that getting into USC was just the beginning. My first semester here was the hardest semester of my entire life.
But here’s the thing: there really is more to USC than what I was experiencing and what people read about lately. I soon discovered great support systems, friends, and opportunities for me at USC. The Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers helped give me my first real home here. With their help I survived my first semester. Then I met Christina Yokoyama from USC’s Norman Topping Student Aid Fund. She offered me a job on campus and helped me get housing near campus. More importantly, she helped me understand that I belonged at USC.
I also learned that I belonged in electrical and computer engineering. I love building things and in ECE I get to make things while still taking some of the most advanced math classes. I just finished my senior design project, where we built an automated pet bowl we named “Chuck Bowl.” Our invention only feeds the pet wearing a specific collar. My classmates and I, a team of electrical engineers, are now working on getting it patented. This is what I love most about ECE: creating things with others, finding and solving problems along the way, and having something at the end that can help people.
It may sound crazy, but the other thing I love about my major is how challenging it is. I love that the son of immigrants from South LA isn’t supposed to do something so difficult or be something so great.
“Engineers at USC are taught to use what we learn to make society a better place. Now I’m in it to give other young people the same opportunities I had.”
For someone like me, the hustle never really ends. This year I’ve been working part-time as an engineer at Boeing while also taking 18 units. I’ve received a full time offer to work there starting next year. Boeing is a great place to work with a lot of exciting things for young engineers to work on. The opportunity to work on the space side of the business has been particularly interesting. The company is really supportive and through them, I hope to pursue my master’s at USC.
My original motivation when I set on this course was improving my life. But along the way something changed. Engineers at USC are taught to use what we learn to make society a better place. Now I’m in it to give other young people the same opportunities I had. I’m working with my friends Yonatan and Edson on a nonprofit that will help people like us pursue higher education. In the fall I’ll be involved with SHPE as the transfer student representative, so I can help new USC transfer students cope with the change.
Am I crazy? Nah. Am I smart? Nah. What I am is a hard worker who learned these values from my immigrant parents and from growing up in the streets of LA. At the end of the day I’m a fighter and I never quit. Today I understand that this was the journey I was meant to have and it’s because of this journey that I am standing where I am. My life has prepared for me this moment, and for all the moments I will face in the future.
I want to end with these words I live by that Tupac once said:
“There’s gon’ be some stuff you gon’ see. that’s gon’ make it hard to smile in the future. But through whatever you see, through all the rain and the pain, you gotta keep your sense of humor.You gotta be able to smile through all this bulls**t. Remember that. Keep ya head up. Yeah.”
No matter how hard things are, you have to stay positive and have a sense of humor. This post may sound like life has made me hard or even bitter, but I’m not at all! There’s nothing I love more than smiling and making other people smile. More than anything else, that is what I want to do as an engineer.
Jose Ruiz walks in commencement today and will receive his degree in electrical and computer engineering from USC Viterbi in the Fall. He serves as Treasurer for the USC Chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and will soon join Boeing as a full time electrical engineer.
By Jose Ruiz