Campus & Community

‘Harvard does something to you: It opens the door to the world’

4 min read

When Raul Ruiz was a teenager, some of his teachers realized he had potential. But most, he says, recommended he apply to a vocational school; it would be a big step toward the American dream for a first-generation Mexican-American boy whose migrant-worker parents had never finished high school.

Even the few teachers who did see Ruiz’s potential could never have dreamed how far it would take him. Today he holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School, an M.P.P. from the Kennedy School of Government, and an M.P.H from the Harvard School of Public Health. He is believed to be the first Latino to earn three graduate degrees from the University.

“There was a 50 percent dropout rate in my high school,” Ruiz says, “and issues with gangs and violence. But my parents instilled the idea that everything is an opportunity. Even when people discouraged me, it was an opportunity to work hard and prove them wrong. I had a very strong sense of rebellion when anyone told me I couldn’t achieve my dreams. Failures were considered opportunities to succeed. That’s how I managed to graduate from high school and then go on to UCLA.”

Ruiz’s mother, he says, was his role model. “She was the community go-to person,” he recalls. “She would help our neighbors when they didn’t understand the system, she’d orient new immigrants, and she’d give people traditional natural medicines.” Because of her example and his experience growing up in a community of migrant farm workers, he developed a strong sense of social justice, and knew by age 4 that he wanted to be a doctor. Still, when a professor at the University of California, where Ruiz earned a magna cum laude undergraduate degree in physiological sciences with a concentration in Chicana/Chicano studies, suggested Harvard, “I said, ‘Where is that and what is that?’”

Once at the University, he continues, “I thought I would go back to my hometown and become a community doctor while working to diminish inequality. But Harvard does something strange to you. It opens the door to the world, and makes you think as a global leader.”

Ruiz should have no problem on that score, according to Stephanie Rosborough, director of the International Emergency Medicine Fellowship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where Ruiz is currently a fellow and an emergency medicine physician. “Raul has the ability to develop a vision and a perspective on things that is quite unusual in a person with his level of training,” she says. “He’s remarkably driven and directed, with an amazing persistence. It’s almost like setbacks mean nothing to him. I think he’s going to be a superstar. There’s no way he can not be.”

Ruiz says his educational trifecta will give him a broad skill set that will allow him to “be versatile and effective in serving vulnerable populations such as the poor and civilian victims of war and terrorism by finding innovative solutions to difficult policy problems.” His first job after graduation will be as a physician in the emergency department at Eisenhower Medical Center, a nonprofit community hospital in California’s Coachella Valley, where he grew up.

From there he plans to continue his work on humanitarian projects and policy with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, including emergency and disaster medicine development for the governments of El Salvador and Serbia. He’ll also study, in conjunction with Harvard’s Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research, the interface of national security and public health as well as security preparedness for international humanitarian aid organizations.

Something of a tall order, but Ruiz shrugs off the political challenges inherent in such projects. “I guess that’s where the dreamers have to step up,” he says, adding after a pause, “Yes, I do think everything is possible.”