By Johnny Flores
PALM DESERT, Calif. — The son of migrant farm workers, Raul Ruiz grew up in a trailer in Coachella dreaming of becoming a doctor and returning to his impoverished community to make difference.
“I wanted to better myself,” said Ruiz when speaking to first generation college-bound students at Xavier College Preparatory High School on April 23.
When applying for colleges, his counselors at Coachella Valley High School paid for his applications to UCLA and Stanford.
“College wasn’t an option for me,” said Ruiz, who is currently running for Congress. “I couldn’t even afford to send my applications, let alone pay for four years’ worth of tuition.”
Ruiz, a Democrat, is competing against Republican incumbent Mary Bono Mack in the new 36th District spanning eastern Riverside County and covering the entire Coachella Valley.
Ruiz was accepted to both universities and ultimately selected UCLA. Then he turned to his community to help make his dream a reality.
“I went around to local mom and pop shops around Coachella in a tight blue suit,” he recalled. “I typed a contract that I would hand to the owner of the shop. The contract had all of my information and what I planned on doing with the money. I told people, ‘I am making you an offer to invest in your community by investing in my education.’”
That summer, Ruiz collected $2000 dollars – enough to pay for two years of books. The rest of his education was paid for through grants, loans and scholarships.
“Being a first generation college student is hard. You don’t know anything. Where to eat, where to sleep, and what happens if I get sick.”
Somehow Ruiz made it happen. He graduated magna cum laude from UCLA and went on to Harvard University, where he obtained his doctor of medicine degree as well as a master’s degree in public policy. Ruiz specialized in emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and returned to Harvard to obtain a master’s degree in public health. He is recognized as the first Latino to receive three graduate degrees from Harvard University.
“Hard work is a valuable lesson, and you learn it from your parents. I was hungry to make a difference in my community and the world,” said Ruiz, an emergency room physician at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage. “What are you passionate about? Serving the community, protecting the basic humans rights of everybody, or that wrong you want to make right?”
After completing his studies, Ruiz traveled around the world to aid heavily impoverished communities in Haiti and Chiapas, Mexico.
“You travel to these places thinking you’ve lived in poverty and get there and know nothing about it,” he said.
Ruiz, who is also a dean at the University of California at Riverside’s School of Medicine, aims to inspire students to go that extra mile and improve the community in which you grew up.
“A lot of people tell you that you can’t make a difference in the community,” he said. “I’m here to tell you, you can. Everything is possible through education.”