At the beginning of Dylan Ruiz’s senior year at U.S. Grant High School, he took a huge leap of faith. Then-presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke was scheduled to visit the school to speak with students and hear about the issues important to them. Ruiz was the last student to address the assembly and candidate, sharing his journey as an undocumented immigrant, a fact nearly no one in his school knew previously.
Ruiz shared that his teenage parents sent him at age 1 to California with his great-grandmother and uncle while they secured passage for themselves. The family sold everything they owned to provide for their transport, and they were unable to get in touch with their baby or family caregivers for over a month.
“Opportunity was scarce, and they crossed over to give me opportunities they never had,” explains Ruiz. “My dad said, ‘I didn’t have anything to give you except change.’”
Ruiz’ classmates were stunned, impressed by his courage in sharing his story. His parents were fearful, worried he or they could be exposed, that despite their commitments and contributions to their community, and their clean track record, that they could be deported. But Ruiz was determined to let his truth shine.
“I did it for my family, for people who don’t have a voice, past and future immigrants,” said Ruiz. “It was a turning point in my life. As I reflect back I think of all the things that would not have happened if I hadn’t accepted that interview and taken the moment to explain my story.”
Ruiz was already a leader and lauded student in his school, but his bravery that day led to opportunities during his senior year he couldn’t have dreamed up.
Leading the way
In addition to being a member of National Honor Society, president of OU Upward Bound and on U.S. Grant’s track, cross country and wrestling teams, Ruiz is known among his peers for his academic discipline and ambition. He says his experience as an immigrant has pushed him to see the probable and make it possible.
Ruiz’ conversation with O’Rourke, which led to interviews with KOCO 5, Telemundo and The Oklahoman, so inspired U.S. Grant assistant principal Kandy Hunt that she implored the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Forward Thinking Leadership Development Program to consider his admittance. The program, lead by Sam Presti and open to sophomores and juniors, has mentored more than 500 students from U.S. Grant, John Marshall, Centennial and Star Spencer High Schools over the last nine years.
Ruiz was accepted as the first senior in the program. The tenacious teen says he gained a better understanding of the leadership tools he already possesses and how to use his strengths to complement and work with others.
“The group was so diverse, so you realized you don’t have to have every correct answer or ability as a leader,” said Ruiz. “It all depends on how you use the abilities you have accumulated and grown along the way.”
Continuing his trend to stand for what is right, even if unpopular, Ruiz penned a letter to his classmates soon after the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools for the remainder of his senior year and meant the cancellation of traditions like prom and graduation. He challenged his classmates to rethink their perspectives, count their blessings and focus on their positive futures.
“I cherish that my classmates took time to read it and decided to make the best of quarantine and our situation,” said Ruiz.
Ruiz was named U.S. Grant’s 2020 Student of the Year.
“It’s not just the title and the fact that my principal and staff agreed I should be representative of Grant, it really speaks upon believing in yourself and your dreams,” said Ruiz. “I’m an undocumented student reaching many goals, doing something far beyond what stereotypes expect me to be.”
Ruiz has long known that because he is a DREAMer (named after the DREAM Act addressing immigration policy), brought to the United States illegally as a child, that there would be certain opportunities unavailable to him. Ruiz was three days away from becoming eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, before it was rescinded by the Trump administration in September 2017.
DACA allowed young undocumented immigrants to receive work permits and exemption from deportation. Recipients can get a driver’s license, pursue their educations and pay taxes. While DACA has never provided a path to U.S. citizenship, DREAMers can receive temporary legal status if they graduate from high school or are honorably discharged from the military and pass a background check.
DACA has been criticized because President Obama created it by executive order, while opponents argue that immigration policy is the responsibility of Congress, a key reason cited by President Trump in rescinding the program. For decades, U.S. lawmakers have reviewed various iterations of the DREAM Act to create a path to citizenship. None have been successful.
For Ruiz’ parents, who’ve lived in America just as long as they lived in Mexico, one of the biggest challenges of being immigrants has been being seen as American, as equals. Obtaining a vehicle and driver’s license have presented obstacles as well. Both of his parents have obtained their GEDs, but Ruiz says their occasional struggles with English cause others to look down upon them. The worst part is the fear that invades their
“Any moment, we may be driving to get groceries or on our way to work, we may be pulled over and possibly sent back to a land we don’t know anything about,” said Ruiz.
In June 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the dismantling of the DACA program that has protected more than 640,000 DREAMers from deportation, according the March 2020 numbers from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Ruiz felt immediate relief at the decision.
“It’s a second chance to pursue a better life,” said Ruiz. “We thought that door was going to close. We had hope, but it was fading away. The Supreme Court’s decision means we are meant to be here. We were always meant to be here.”
Ruiz sees himself, and other Mexican immigrants, as a bridge. While many Mexican-American youth live in a space where friends, family or strangers declare they are either too Mexican or too American, Ruiz says it’s up to them to set a good example, vindicating immigrants who have suffered and showing those who come after how to live.
Ruiz wishes all immigrants, documented and undocumented alike, were given the respect and admiration they are due for the challenges they have withstood and their contributions to our country and humanity. He points to founding father and immigrant Alexander Hamilton as an example.
“With the hatred of undocumented or documented immigrants, this nation needs to see where our roots come from,” said Ruiz.
After his interview with KOCO, Ruiz says a commenter called him a “disgrace to public education,” an affront that crushed his parents but one he says he shrugged off, choosing instead to focus on life-giving words from his mentor from OU Upward Bound, who told Ruiz his successes and accomplishments are just the beginning.
A future of possibilities
Ruiz says finishing his high school career in the midst of a pandemic was a blessing in disguise. The experience only strengthened his resolve and resilience
and gave him the opportunity to spend more time with his family.
“My fire of ambition and integrity comes from knowing I entered this life under the most drastic circumstances but through that I’ve still been able to achieve the unachievable,” said Ruiz. “I had nothing, but I still have made the best of it through my own ideas and dedication.”
Ruiz is now a first-generation college student at the University of Oklahoma majoring in industrial engineering. He dreams of owning his own company where other entrepreneurs and business owners can access the resources they need to bring their dreams to fruition. Amidst the calls for immigration reform, a global pandemic and blatant racial injustices and tension, this rising star chooses to call out the positives.
“I see real-life heroes, leaders and civil rights activists, fighting for things for the genuine good for mankind,” said Ruiz. “Not to degrade each other or exploit each other but to unite each other.”
With much hope for his own future and that of our city, state and country, Ruiz is determined to add his own positive energy, leadership skills and tenacity to leave the world better than it was before.
“I love that the work you do and ambition you have transcends throughout time and history,” said Ruiz. “You can set an example both for your own time and for future generations.”
Read Dylan Ruiz’s heartfelt letter to the class of 2020 at metrofamilymagazine.com/dear-