Dr. Ines Ruiz-Huston learned two valuable lessons from her parents: Honor your heritage and value education.
Ruiz-Huston, the Latinx Community Outreach coordinator at the University of the Pacific, has not only held on to those teachings but they are now the core of her profession and what she aims to pass on to her students.
Following her role as the director of Pacific’s Community Involvement Program and Multicultural Affairs, Ruiz-Huston, 45, became the university’s first Latinx Community Outreach coordinator in 2008. The goal was to create a safe place and support system for Latinx students to help them thrive while not feeling like that had to lose their language or culture.
In the last six years, the Latinx Community Outreach center has seen the usage of its facility grow by 365 percent.
“So the idea is this (center) is a positive thing, this is a good thing to have,” she said. “So we keep that going so students don’t feel like they have to lose their identity to be someone else … when you can be successful in both worlds.”
The purpose of the center is also to make sure students in the area are enrolling in higher education and that once at a university or college that they are graduating.
“I’m here to be your resource to do what needs to be done to succeed,” she said.
Ruiz-Huston, who earned a doctorate in educational administration and leadership, said education is her passion and she loves watching students go from their freshmen year in college to graduation.
Her parents only had a sixth-grade education but she said both made sure she knew where to turn for help and guidance, which is now the role she plays in communities throughout San Joaquin County.
“I see all the young people in this community as my own family and I want to make sure I can help them,” she said. “Veer them the right way, connecting them to the right people so they can be successful and come back and support their families.”
1. What made you want to join the University of Pacific?
“I came to be the director of multicultural affairs and the Community Involvement Program for two reasons: two of my biggest loves is multiculturalism on a college campus and the other one is scholarships for the first generation low-income families to have an opportunity to go to college. So that’s what brought me to this institution and to vamp things up and make it for the better.”
2. When did you become interested in this field?
“I attended Oregon State University and I’ve always been passionate about my cultura. When I was an undergrad student I was involved in the Latino organizations. I worked with different groups on campus and one of the jobs I had was working at the Hispanic Cultural Center, which we renamed later to Centro Cultural Cesar Chavez, and I was also involved in student government and politics … When my senior year came up, people asked ‘So, Ines, what are you going to do?’ I’d tell them, ‘I’m going to go get a job to help support my family’ and they’re like, ‘Why don’t you go into college administration? You can work on a college campus.” … I applied for (Oregon State University’s) College Student Services Administration master’s program.
“From there, my first job opportunity was at the University of Florida as the director of the Institute of Hispanic-Latino Cultures.”
3. The importance of honoring your cultura, where does that passion come from?
“It definitely comes from my parents. My parents always spoke Spanish at home but at school, we spoke English. I share all the time that when I was in second grade, my teacher told my parents to stop speaking Spanish because it was going to ruin my ability to speak and communicate, and it’s detrimental to my education … My mom and my dad always said, ‘You’re twice as smart as everybody because you know two languages.’ I’m doing the same culture with my children: they go to Pittman Charter School so todo el día en español y en casa en inglés.
“Growing up in Portland, Oregon, was a real challenge too because we were the only ones. My brother and I (went through) being teased, the name calling, even through high school people would say, ‘Let me see your papers.’ And, ‘Are you really from here?’ ‘Where are you from?’ Constant questions of my identity and who I am. I was blessed when I got to Oregon State that I found mi gente.”
4. What is your role as the Latinx Community Outreach coordinator?
“One of the things is reaching out to the community; working with all our nonprofit agencies, all the Latino-based organizations in the community. I try to keep in tune with them, work with them in different events, sponsor those events …
“Education is key. It’s key for our community so being that ally and support system for our students and their families. To be that resource ... I’m a huge advocate for higher ed, no me important donde. So that’s what we want to do, how do we get the questions and the answers for families.”
5. Who are the students you’re serving?
“The majority of our Latinx students in California in any system if higher ed is going to be our Mexican-American student population. The other two groups coming in strong are Salvadorian students and Guatemalan students, along with the Puerto Rican population. Not to mention that we’re a very diverse population so a lot of my students are also half, they're mixed. Our community is such a mix community.”
6. How is the University of the Pacific doing in making sure Latinas are succeeding in higher education?
“We’re trying to be the lead as one of the institutions. We’re about 67 percent retention rate for the overall Latino population, just for Latinas, I’m not sure, but I can tell you we’re doing pretty good.
“My biggest worries right now, and I think in higher ed overall in California, is our male students. Ever since the (economic) crisis in 2008, we saw our numbers drop, but now our numbers are jumping up again. Our male students were the ones that were lost quicker than the women … they were quicker to go into the job market versus going to a four-year university.
“The Latina women, I feel there tend to be more support groups nowadays, and our numbers are starting to grow in higher ed. I think we’ve created more networks in terms of Latina women … have more and more representatives and faculty to show, ‘She did it, I can do it.’ Creating those connections really helps our students …”
7. How can we as a community attract more Latinos into higher education?
“One of the key things we need to focus on is financial aid. Families are really, really scared por el dinero. They put that up as an obstacle. Families look at the price of higher ed and say ‘no sé puede,’ and the kids are quick to jump into community college systems, so I think our community colleges systems are doing a great job of the open door concept but what we need to do is (choose) five school you want to go to; get me a UC, get me a CSU, get me a private, get me an out of state and of course a community college. Five schools and haber que pasa. It doesn’t mean they’re going to get accepted but we want you to try, at least see … we shortchange ourselves versus actually applying for the school that you’d probably get into it but didn’t apply.
“They’re worried about the money because they see the price tag, but between financial aid, between the Cal Grant, between these components, it’s going to be big time taken care of.”
8. Do you think that part of it was that it took so long to include Latino families in conversations about higher education?
“It took the movement of the late ’60s to get that going and then to this day we still feel, or we sense, there are some walls being put up … One is the free application for (financial aid) that should be in every single student’s hands whether they’re going to college or not. Every student should know about the systems of higher education and how to get there.
“I think we still have a lot of work to do. I’m glad now there’s bilingual information.”
9. What are some of the advances that you’ve seen Latinos have been able to make at Pacific?
“One thing is that we’ve grown. We’re still not a Hispanic-serving institution but we’re really close so that’s great news. One of the things that Pacific does great in terms of our Latinx student population is the small classroom environment that we have here at Pacific. Our students thrive in that because they get to talk to the faculty members. Tutors for our students are very much available … so I think we provide great services and a lot of attention.”
10. Why should communities want Latinx students to thrive and succeed in higher education?
“Nationally, Latinx we’re the driving force of all communities to support the economy. If we don’t have the degrees and the certifications, we’re going to dump. The economy cannot sustain only (low-earning) trabajadores. We have to have positions at all levels and we have to prepare our comunidad to do that.”