Working with our neighbors to build a strong community

Academic Advancement That’s All in the Family

By Robin Heffler

A fifth-grade class assignment dramatically changed the life of Jonathan Ruiz and his family.

Jonathan”s teacher at 28th Street School assigned his class to apply for admission to the flagship program of USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI). Through NAI’s Pre-College Enrichment Academy, disadvantaged middle- and high-school students receive extensive academic training and other support that have led to striking success in college admissions and achievement.

At the time of Jonathan’s application, his family was about to return to his parents’ native Mexico. “Mom pressed Dad to wait on their plans,” he said. “I applied on the last day at the last minute.”

Jonathan was accepted in the second year of the Academy. He found it very demanding. “We had to study hard and were kept so busy that there was no time to get involved with gangs in the area,” he said. “We spent the first two hours [each day] at USC, where we studied language arts, English, and college-study skills before being bussed to our own schools. We also had tutoring after school and Saturday school. And, the simple fact of being called ‘a scholar’ changed our expectations of ourselves.”

Equally important was the guidance his parents received from NAI’s Family Development Institute on how to support their three sons’ academic and personal growth. “For the first time, we had a desk, a place on which to do our homework,” Jonathan noted. “They also learned how to be involved in our lives in general, including health and nutrition.”

Jonathan’s hard work paid off when he was accepted to USC where he graduated in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in philosophy. Today, he is the director of business development at an El Monte publishing company, which provides resources nationwide to help English learners pass state standardized tests.

“I’ve come full circle,” Jonathan said. “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.”

His youngest brother, Jesse, followed in his 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 said. “I wanted to do the same for them. His going through NAI was an example of how I could do it. They had bought me a small blackboard to learn to write before I even entered pre-school, which helped develop my passion for learning.”

When he was accepted into the Academy, Jesse said, “I felt at home. I was finally surrounded by people who enjoyed learning and were going somewhere important in life. 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 the spring of 2012, Jesse graduated from USC with a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French, and a minor in public health. The Ruiz family’s middle son, Giovanni, who did not attend the Academy, received a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Cal State University Dominguez Hills, and went on to work in the cable television and Internet industry.

Like Jonathan, Jesse has paid forward his Academy training.

Jesse volunteered as a tutor and mentor to younger NAI scholars at his alma mater, Foshay Middle School. “I shared my experiences with them, and told them that if I could pass AP [Advanced Placement] English with an ‘A,’ it was possible for them, too,” he said. He also spent several weeks in Thailand, teaching English to elementary-school students and helping to build a library. That experience prompted his decision to pursue a doctorate in a field related to international relations and nongovernmental organizations.

The academic and career choices of these two NAI alumni reflect the vision of USC and the NAI team. As the Academy aids the next generation of college students and their families, Jonathan noted, it’s “always emphasizing the idea of coming back and helping the community.”