Doctoral Work at UPenn Brings New Opportunities for U of A Graduate
October 14, 2016
By Bettina Lehovec, University Relations staff writer
When Roman Ruiz entered the College of Education and Health Professions in 2010 as a master's student in the higher education program, the first textbook he used was American Higher Education in the 21st Century, assigned by Kate Mamiseishvili in her Overview of American Higher Education course.
This year, students in the same course will be reading the fourth edition of the graduate-level text – with a chapter co-authored by Ruiz.
"We're very proud of him," Mamiseishvili said about the 2013 University of Arkansas graduate, now a pre-doctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. "Roman is going to do great things. I want to watch his career - and how far it takes off."
Ruiz, who was accepted into doctoral programs at seven prestigious institutions, is thriving at Penn, where he works with Laura W. Perna, co-founder of the Penn Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy. Perna and Ruiz co-authored the textbook chapter, which explores the role of technology in higher education.
Ruiz and Perna have similar research agendas that focus on college access, particularly how federal and state education policies can improve college opportunities for low-income, racial- and ethnic-minority, and first-generation college students.
In his first year at Penn, Ruiz assisted Perna in preparing congressional testimony on best practices for helping low-income and first-generation college students enter and succeed in higher education. Perna delivered written and spoken testimony to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce as part of that body's deliberations on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act.
Also in 2015, Ruiz served as a summer research fellow for The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education in Washington, D.C., where he used federal data to document trends in college access and affordability for low-income students. He contributed his findings to the 2016 edition of the national report Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States, a joint publication of The Pell Institute and Penn AHEAD. The report generated nationwide discussion, including articles in The Atlantic and Inside Higher Ed.
The Pell Institute is the research arm of the Council for Opportunity in Education, the national TRIO advocacy organization. TRIO programs are federally funded educational outreach and student services programs designed to assist low-income students, first-generation students, and students with disabilities in pursuing higher education.
Ruiz worked with the University of Arkansas's TRIO Talent Search program from 2010 to 2013, serving as an academic counselor and providing college preparation services to Northwest Arkansas middle and high school students.
His in-the-field experience with the TRIO Talent Search program informed his perspective, his research interests and his long-term goals, Ruiz said. A low-income, first-generation college student himself, Ruiz is intimately familiar with the barriers to college access for students like him.
"I really feel indebted to the University of Arkansas," he said. "Working for a TRIO program opened my eyes. It allowed me to develop as a professional and informs my current work.
"That's what's so powerful about higher education - it suddenly opens up the world for you. It sets you on a path, changes your trajectory, allows you to see that a different kind of life is possible."
Ruiz spent this past summer in Washington, working as an intern with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development. Ruiz conducted research and analysis to help inform federal higher education policy proposals. A fellowship from the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative covered his expenses in D.C.
The internship taught him that it takes more than rigorous research evidence to affect policy decisions, Ruiz said. "Maybe I was naïve. In the political arena there are so many factors you have to consider. I still believe in using un-biased, objective research to drive decision-making, but I have a better understanding of the other human factors involved."
Ruiz also was accepted to attend the American Enterprise Institute's Education Policy Academy and the National Center for Education Statistics' Data Institute in Washington this summer. Another highlight was serving as a counselor for the National Student Leadership Congress at Georgetown University, an annual summer program hosted by the Council for Opportunity in Education.
The leadership development program brings more than 150 pre-college TRIO students from across the U.S. to the nation's capital for a week of cultural and historical tours, educational workshops, guest speakers and the development and introduction of mock Congressional bills. The highlight of the event is students meeting with their elected senators or representatives to share their stories and discuss how TRIO has impacted their path to college.
"It's the best thing I do all year," said Ruiz, who has joined the volunteer staff for four of the past five summers. "I got my start in college access with the TRIO community. I want to stay grounded and connected to students who are impacted by federal policy. It's important to connect research to the people who are living with the results of those policies."
Ruiz's doctoral research is focused on the importance of place in relation to postsecondary educational outcomes. He is using spatial data methods to analyze how patterns of human, economic and cultural capital are unevenly distributed across the country and the way access to resources limits or expands college access.
He uses the analogy of a potted plant that only grows as big as its container to explain why place matters for educational outcomes. His own move to the East Coast has allowed him to flourish in ways that weren't available in Northwest Arkansas, he said. "What changed? I'm still the same person - same ethnicity, same gender, same intelligence. What changed? The context changed."
"The world has opened up so much more for me. I have access to people and ideas and training - a whole new world of opportunities I didn't know existed."
In January, Ruiz was named one of 10 K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders, a prestigious national award administered by the Association of American Colleges & Universities. The award recognizes graduate students who show exemplary promise as future leaders of higher education.