Jonathan ’02, left, and Jesse Ruiz ’12 hit the books in secondary school and at USC. Photo by Dietmar Quistorf

At an early age, Jonathan Ruiz ’02 became his family’s education pioneer — although he could hardly have known it at the time.

Ruiz’s parents moved to Los Angeles from rural Mexico, and though they never had the chance to go to school, they knew the importance of education for their own children. “They always said that they didn’t want to see us in the kinds of jobs they had, working in factories,” he says.

It’s a story shared by countless first-generation Americans and first-generation college students at USC — including Jonathan’s youngest brother, Jesse Ruiz ’12.

The Ruiz brothers’ path to college started when Jonathan was in fifth grade. His teacher at 28th Street Elementary School, near USC, gave the class a unique assignment: Apply for admission to a college-prep program run by USC.

In the Pre-College Enrichment Academy, part of the university’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI), his parents saw an opportunity they couldn’t pass up, despite imminent plans for a move back to their homeland.

“Mom pressed Dad to wait on their plans to return to Mexico,” says Jonathan, the eldest of three boys, “and I applied on the last day at the last minute. They were excited about the promise of a full scholarship at USC if I did well in the program.” Through the academy, NAI’s flagship program, middle and high school students from low-income neighborhoods get extensive academic training and support that lead to college success.

Jonathan was accepted, entered the academy’s second class and found the work so demanding that he had no time for distractions.

“We spent the first two hours of class at USC, where we studied language arts, English and college-study skills before being bused to our own schools,” he says. “We also had tutoring after school and Saturday school.”

Academy participants are called “scholars,” a title that pushed Jonathan’s expectations of himself. Equally important was the guidance his parents received from NAI’s Family Development Institute about how to support their sons’ academic and personal growth.

“For the first time, we had a desk, a place on which to do our homework,” he says. “They also learned how to be involved in our lives in general, including health and nutrition.”

His hard work paid off when he was accepted to USC. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in philosophy. Today, he is the director of business development at an El Monte, Calif., publishing company that provides resources nationwide to help English learners with state standardized tests.

“I’ve come full circle,” Jonathan says. “I started off as an English learner because my folks only spoke Spanish at home initially. Also, I was the first one in my family to go to college, and it raised expectations for everyone in the family.”

A decade later, brother Jesse followed in Jonathan’s footsteps.

“I was in fourth grade when Jonathan graduated from USC, and I saw how proud and filled with joy my parents were that day,” Jesse says. “I wanted to do the same for them. His going through NAI was an example of how I could do it.”

After acceptance into the academy, the younger Ruiz felt at home. “I was finally surrounded by people who enjoyed learning and were going somewhere important in life,” he says. “The academy was more than just a support group. It was a family that I knew would push me to the finish line: getting into a good college.”

In spring 2012, Jesse Ruiz graduated from USC with a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French and a minor in public health. Like Jonathan, Jesse has paid forward his academy training. He volunteered as a tutor and mentor to younger NAI scholars at James A. Foshay Learning Center and traveled to Thailand to teach children English. He also helped build a library during his trip, an experience that spurred his postgraduate studies in international relations and nongovernmental organizations.

In addition, the Ruiz family’s middle son, Giovanni, who did not attend the academy, received a bachelor’s degree in marketing from California State University, Dominguez Hills.

The Ruiz brothers’ experiences and desire to give to others reflect the values of their parents, the academy and the university. As the academy boosts the next generation of college students and their families, Jonathan says, it’s “always emphasizing the idea of coming back and helping the community.”

To learn more about USC’s role in our neighborhoods, visit USC Government and Civic Engagement.

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