Edgewood College’s Community Scholars Transitioning to Emerging Leaders: Devoted to Academic Excellence and Community

Edgewood

Miguel Meza (l-r) and Michel Hernandez Ruiz are entering their sophomore years as Emerging Leaders at Edgewood College

By Jonathan Gramling

While Miguel Meza and Michel Hernandez Ruiz share a passion — and gratitude — for earning a college degree and serving others, they have taken somewhat different journeys to get to Edgewood College and its Emerging Leaders Program.

Meza was born and raised in Honduras until he was 10-years old and his family moved to Madison, aided by family members who lived in Madison. He spent a lot of time outdoors in Honduras, but Madison’s wintry weather drove him inside. And while Meza was somewhat introverted in Honduras, his personality has flourished in Madison.

“I have cousins in Honduras and we are the same age,” Meza said. “But we seem so different because of the culture, the impact that it has. I was quieter in Honduras. Over here, I was able to develop my character, talk more and be more open to ideas. My cousins are more family-oriented. Their real personality will only show when they are with family or people they know. If they meet someone new, they wouldn’t really show it too much.”

Ruiz was born and raised in Madison. But because she was from a Spanish-speaking household, she needed special assistance at Emerson Elementary School to make the jump to an English-speaking educational environment.

“There were teachers who were dedicated to that,” Ruiz said. “They would go with bilingual students or students who only spoke Spanish or other languages. And they would stay with them and explain to them what was going on. I think that was really helpful. If that wasn’t a resource available to me, it would have been very difficult to pick up on it. Luckily I was able to speak English by the time I got to first grade.”

Ruiz flourished and was devoted to her studies at East High. And she landed an excellent after school job that introduced her to the larger Madison community.

“I worked with a consulting company called Urban Assets,” Ruiz said. “I focused on community projects. We worked with the Metro and did a lot of outreach. That was my main job. I worked as the ambassador. I talked to people in the community. I got their opinions and input. I did a lot of the social media management during that time. It was a good first job. I was able to balance school and the job. It was a really good experience. And I got to work with a lot of people in Madison. I learned a lot.”

Meza had a more difficult time due to mobility factors.

“I was in sixth grade when we came,” Meza said. “I went to three middle schools, Sennett, Cherokee and Badger Ridge. We were moving a lot. I went to Verona Area High School. I was there all four years. We did move, but we put my address as my aunt’s so that I could stay in one place. In high school, if you are moving a lot, it messes up your credits and your plans for college. In order for me to stay consistent and be consistent in my learning, I just stayed in Verona.”

Ruiz went to college directly after graduating from college.

“I applied to about six colleges including UW-Madison and Minnesota,” Ruiz said. “I was really drawn to Edgewood, for the small community and it is close to home so I am able to see my parents on the weekends.”

Meza took a more difficult path to get to Edgewood. He took a gap year after graduating from Verona Area High School and worked as a CNA at Oakwood Village West before landing a job with Access Community Health Center where his work was more administrative. And when he decided to take that step to higher education, he was resourceful because he was basically on his own.

“I didn’t keep my teachers’ emails at all and my school email address got deleted,” Meza recalled. “I didn’t have any contact with the high school again. When I applied for college, I looked up videos on how to do it. And I did it myself. Then I saw on a YouTube video that if you want to get financial aid, you have to call up the financial aid office 100 times. Just keep calling and calling until they said yes. I did that literally. I remember punching out of my job at 4 p.m. I knew that was when the people in the business office leave. That’s when I was calling because that was the only time I was able to. I was also calling on my lunch break. They told me no so many times. Finally they said they were going to contact someone. That’s when Richard Sims got in contact with me. He was like, ‘You may have an opportunity to get into this program.’ I applied. Someone told me, ‘Send this essay by today,’ and I was at work. I went to my boss and asked, ‘Can I have two hours to clock out, go to an office room and start writing an essay for a scholarship?’ He said yes, so I did that. I think it was on a Friday. On Monday, they called me. Richard was like, ‘Hey, I want to have a meeting with you.’ That’s when he told me that someone out of nowhere gave up their scholarship and one seat opened. He said there were five other people who were waiting to hear from him. But he ended up going with me. I was surprised and I was blessed I would say. It was a great opportunity and the doors opened for me. I am very grateful that this special opportunity came.”

Both Meza and Ruiz were admitted to the Emerging Leaders — formerly the Community Scholars Program — and were given free tuition and lodging on campus. Meza continued to work part time with Access Community Health. Making the adjustment to a small, predominantly white campus was difficult.

“It was strange being in an environment where it is predominantly white for someone who is Latino,” Meza said. “I always try to find my people around. But it was difficult because most Latinos or Hispanics are commuting. They don’t live on campus and it is challenging to make plans with them when they have responsibilities at home. Usually they will come to school, but only for their classes. Because they don’t have a meal plan, they have to go home to eat.”

“I graduated from Madison East and it was a very diverse school,” Ruiz added. “Coming to Edgewood was a big culture shock. Although we are still in Madison, when I was a freshman here, it felt like somewhere else and away from home. Since Emerging Leaders offered scholarships to stay at the dorms, I was required to stay at the dorms and I had never been away from home for that long. I was pretty homesick even though I only live 15 minutes away. I think that was one of the biggest challenges, just getting used to your environment and meeting new people. I have had to really step out of my comfort zone and find community.”

Meza found staying in the dorms as an advantage.

“Staying at the dorm helped me a lot with connecting with other people in terms of making friends, making connections and getting closer with the faculty,” Meza said. “That is something that I am very grateful for that I am able to talk with them on a regular basis. I’ve talked with the president and the vice-president. Richard is a great resource. I call him my business card because anywhere we go, any important person in the room, he will go and say, ‘Hey do you know Miguel?’ It’s a lot of networking and meeting a lot of people. In terms of my community and where I feel welcome.”

And now going into their sophomore year, Meza and Ruiz hope to create community for other students as the president and vice-president of the Latinx Student Union.

“Our mission and goal is connected to our own experience at Edgewood,” Meza said. “It is to make the Hispanic community come together. This year, we have a lot of Latinos. Everywhere I go, there’s more. I think the incoming freshman class is 15 percent students of color. That’s a lot for Edgewood. Our mission is to bring us together. Have events where we have food that we know and are familiar with and music that we are familiar with and build community.”

Meza struggled his first year, perhaps getting rusty with the gap year he took and not always comprehending some of the more abstract English terms that were used in his business classes.

“I didn’t know how to check Blackboard or use my resources well,” Meza said. “But then this year, I’ve learned to use Google Calendar, Microsoft To Do List and learned to always put everything down. One tip that someone told me that I really appreciate was to do small tasks in between everything else because small tasks I would leave until the end and they would pile up and they would become a big project. So in between everything, I’m doing all of the small tasks. And it helps a lot. I write it down and then I mark it off. Sometimes I will do something and I didn’t write it down. But I will write it down and mark it off because it feels good. Sometimes I sit down for two hours to do stuff and at the end, I put down on a paper ‘Things I Did Today.’ That way, I feel motivated the next day.”

Emerging Leaders was a big help in allowing Meza and Ruiz make the adjustment to Edgewood.

“I’ve had a really positive experience so far at Edgewood,” Ruiz said. “Especially through Emerging Leaders, I’ve been able to meet new people and find that smaller community within this community. It’s been really rewarding. I’m very grateful to not have that stress of the financial burden. It’s been a really positive experience so far. I’m really excited to see what else I can get out of this.”

“For Emerging Leaders, we have to volunteer and we have to do meetings with the group as well as one-on-one meetings with Richard,” Meza said. “For volunteering, we went to St. Vinney’s. We did a lot of packaging food for people for the holidays, special events or just for people who need food. We also did some volunteering around Edgewood. We volunteered for the Campus School. We fixed the park that they have over there.”

Meza is majoring in business and considers himself a social entrepreneur.

“I’m hoping to open up businesses that would help a cause,” Meza said. “I would help create anything that would contribute to a cause. At first, I was more for-profit. But I think I am slowly drifting to more of a mission over profit mindset.”

Ruiz is committed to enter the nursing profession.

“In elementary school during recess, I was able to offer up my recess and work with kindergarteners and first graders,” Ruiz said. “I would help them and bring stuff for them and build a community with them. I was in fifth grade at the time. I would donate my time to be with them and be a resource for them. I learned that I enjoyed working with kids. And then throughout middle school and high school, I just explored my opportunities and what I was able to do. I took a couple of medical classes. And I took medical terminology my senior year. I saw that I really liked doing that science stuff. I was like, ‘How can I put working with kids and the medical field together?’ I thought of pediatrics and that’s how I found I wanted to work in pediatrics.”

Both Meza and Ruiz are grateful for the opportunity that Edgewood has given them. Perhaps Meza said it best.

“I am so thankful for being able to work with Richard and being in the Emerging Leaders Program and having the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree,” Meza said. “I know a lot of people don’t. This semester, I am planning to be on the honor’s list and just focus on getting my grades in good standing, getting my homework done on time, studying for my quizzes and staying on top of everything. I know that the opportunity that I have is not an opportunity that everyone has. I want to show that and really be thankful for what I have and really realize that if I put in the work, I can do it regardless of language barriers, background barriers or whatever barriers I face.”
In their own ways, Miguel Meza and Michel Hernandez Ruiz will be leaders in their own way. And it is through Edgewood College’s Emerging Leaders Program that they will have found their ways and received the support they need to reach for their dreams.

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