When 38-year-old Richard Ruiz became a father during high school, he said he faced the kind of adversity and responsibilities that few other teenagers have to experience.
But after 20 years, including a tour in Afghanistan, the U.S. Marine captain’s newest challenge will be delivering the 2015 student Commencement address. A total of 74 students applied to be this year’s speaker, and a judges’ panel made up of students, faculty and staff chose Ruiz last week over nine other finalists to speak before Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook.
Ruiz, who is graduating with a master’s degree in leadership education and development, said his goal is to give the about 25,000 attending the May 17 ceremony on the National Mall a speech that reminds them of the importance of imagination when trying to create change.
“Your imagination is the preview to what the future has to offer,” he said.
Ruiz, who graduated from Oregon State University with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology in 2005, said he’d weave stories about his past into his speech – like his experience in the military, and how it helped him shape his priorities.
“When I was out in Afghanistan, fighting against the Taliban, there were times when my life potentially slipped in my hands,” Ruiz said. “And once you experience those type of things, I think you become a little numb to other things.”
Before Ruiz could join the Marines, he had to take care of a newborn child while still making sure he’d get to throw his cap at high school graduation.
He said he worked midnight shifts while he was in school, raising his son with his now-wife and balancing the roles of father and high school student to graduate on time. He even found himself homeless for a time as a young father.
“I was very set on not trying to get any government assistance and was very determined to be self-sufficient,” he said. Ruiz, whose parents were immigrants from Mexico, was the first in his family to earn a college degree.
Ruiz also said he wants to engage graduates by telling tidbits of his life story and illustrating a larger point about materializing goals.
“I think it’s good for people to hear someone’s story, and especially if they can relate it to theirs. It motivates them,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz’s immediate family will be at Commencement, including his wife and three of his four children. His now 20-year-old son followed his father’s path in pursuing a career in the Marines.
Nina Seavey, a research professor of history and media and public affairs who was one of the judges in the student Commencement speaker competition, said Ruiz stood out because of his ability to connect with his audience on a personal level.
“Outside of his amazing personal story, the inspirational message of his speech as he spoke about his life steps literally elevated the room. I had goosebumps,” Seavey said in an email.
After graduation, Ruiz will work as an adjunct professor at the U.S Naval Academy while serving as a commissioned officer for 150 newcomers to the academy. He will also teach a leadership course there.
He said the main takeaways from his speech should be to take action on dreams and push to achieve goals that improve the lives of others.
“Because if you graduate from here, you are already successful. But more importantly than the things that are happening for you is what are we doing for this world to make it better?” Ruiz said.