High Jump Pupil to Marshall Scholar

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Education

By: Ashmar Mandou

Chicago native Alejandro Ruizesparza has much to celebrate in the New Year as he is one of 40 individuals chosen as a Marshall Scholar, a prestigious national scholarship that fully funds graduate degree studies in the United Kingdom. Ruizesparza, first-generation Mexican-American, attributes much of his academic success to his parental support and High Jump, a non-profit that offers free educational support for low-income elementary students. Ruizesparza, a student at Stanford University, where he founded the school’s Undergraduate Psychology Association and is focusing on how cultural identifications influences interactions with others of different backgrounds, talks with Lawndale Bilingual Newspaper about his experience at High Jump and how important it is to go after your goal.

Lawndale Bilingual Newspaper: Congratulations on being selected as one of the 40 Marshall Scholars! Describe your sentiments upon hearing the news.

Alejandro Ruizesparza: Funny enough, I found out via email as I was just getting up and looked at my phone screen to check the time. Honestly, I was so groggy it didn’t even occur to me to feel much of anything (other than the desire to go back to sleep) right away. Once I began to realize that this was a real thing, and that I definitely wasn’t just dreaming, the first thing I did was call the family and let them in on the news. I’m not the type of person to get intensely excited or display any of those trademark characteristics, but I did feel a great wave of calm overtake me. It’s senior year, so it’s also the time period in which we’re supposed to figure out what we’ll be doing after graduation, and it was wonderful knowing that I’d been lucky enough to have it figured out.

You contributed your success to High Jump.  How did you come across High Jump and how exactly did the program shape you into being the student you are today?

Like many things, I came across it through a mixture of hard work and chance. It’s safe to say I was always one of the “nerdy” kids, or something like that, and I was able to have a good set of experiences with various people who instilled a love of learning in me at an early age. Somewhere down the line over at Soccoro Sandoval Elementary School, one of my teachers noticed that and was intrigued. I think it was during a parent-teacher progress report meeting when that same teacher handed my mom a flyer for High Jump and we all decided I should try to apply. Looking back on it, I think younger-Alejandro was most interested in the promised camping trip! But it’d be silly to say I didn’t want to learn more, especially during those long summers that seemed to drag on longer each year. And the impression the experience made is something I’ve been able to notice much more, now that I’m older and have that privilege of retroactively analyzing past experiences.

At High Jump, yes I got to learn a lot more under classes that weren’t offered to me in elementary school. And, though I can’t speak for everyone, I do feel that it was a good preparation for my schooling at Whitney M. Young later down the line. But the most significant aspects of the experience came with exposure to two ideas: (1) it’s alright to be a bit different, especially when you feel most comfortable in that difference and (2) there’s a broad expanse of experiences and realities existing in this city, all superimposed over each other.

I admit that they sound like clichés and platitudes, they very well may be, but they were formative and powerful for me. I recall a quote by Junot Diaz in The Brief and Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao: “You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto.” The first time I read that I was struck; it does feel othering to have these “nerdy” interests where “nerdy” is normatively incorrect. I think that sentiment has changed a lot in my neighborhood, which is absolutely fantastic! But when I was younger and didn’t really feel that, I got a lot out of being in a setting like High Jump and realizing that there were tons of kids like-and-unlike me that had these shared interests. That’s where (1) really came in, and it was empowering to my younger self, it reified that love for learning now that I could see it in others. And by engaging with all of these kids like-and-unlike me, I began to really understand how immensely vast the realm of human experience could be in our city, how we all claim to interact with a singular reality but really have our own personal realities that we work under. That second thought would color the way I thought of subjective experience for years to come, and I still see pieces of it within my choice to study psychology at Stanford or focus on cross-cultural differences. It’s remarkable how these little experiences leave lasting presences on our lives, even if we don’t realize that possibility right away.

How did your parents inspire and motivate you?

I’m lucky to have two parents that cared enough to push me in various forms. It’s not like that for everyone, don’t I know it, and I’m counting myself lucky here. Both my parents are Mexican immigrants and definitely channel that hard-worker ethic. In the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton: “Immigrants, we get the job done!”  Dad, a working man with a tough-love attitude, was never shy about telling us kids to constantly do-better or try-harder. For him, complacency was anathema and it made me (sometimes overly) self-critical; a trait with the qualities of a double-edged sword. It makes “satisfaction” a rather foreign concept, but it ensures discipline and allows me to take flaws within my own work quite seriously– it’s one way of opening up a route toward self-progress. Mom took a softer approach in her parental style, and it was every bit as necessary. She taught me that it’s alright, hell many times even more courageous, to display vulnerability with honesty and I attribute that kind of authenticity as the source of every healthy relationship and deep friendship I’ve been able to make. Even when other people didn’t have any sort of hope for me as a kid, mom never gave up insisting I had some sort of potential. And I’ll say, folks think they can say anything around kids. But I still have memories from as early as 6-years old involving those voices that disagreed with mom’s hopes and I still fully remember the faces. Even if she was hurt, mom never fully gave in and she fought for me just like she would fight for my sisters afterwards. It’s no joke, I couldn’t have gotten anywhere at all without her support being so present from my birth onwards.

What would you like others to know about High Jump?

Simply that it’s a great experience! I’d say go for it and apply if that’s something you’re interested in. I just want the youth out there doing things they love, learning from their own unique set of experiences and deriving a sense of personal meaning from that. If High Jump can do that for someone else, fantastic! Life is flavored by personal experience and each of ours might involve different tastes. Figuring out how to live, in an abstract sense, isn’t easy, but it’s amazing what taking these kinds of leaps can help people learn about themselves.

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