Admissions Director reflects on decades of promoting UC Merced
There’s something about a UC Merced student that’s just different.
Encarnación “Chon” Ruiz gets some of the credit for that difference.
As UC Merced’s founding director of admissions and outreach, Ruiz has had a hand in all aspects of student recruitment, starting even before the university opened. He traveled up and down the Valley singing the praises of the UC’s newest campus when the site was still a golf course. Now he leads a team of 26 employees who have grown student enrollment to almost 9,000 this fall.
Pioneering. Entrepreneurial. Intrepid.
These words are often used to describe UC Merced students, but they fit the admissions efforts as well.
“Our first admissions campaign was called ‘open your mind,’” Ruiz recalled. “That’s what we were asking everyone to do — to consider the possibilities and opportunities of a new research university right here in the San Joaquin Valley.”
Jessica “JaeJae” Julian remembers that campaign well. She joined Merced’s pioneering class in 2005. After college, she joined Ruiz in the Office of Admissions and now works with Alumni Relation.
She recalls Ruiz giving out his number to students and their families, making sure they knew how to reach him.
“Relationships are important to him,” she said. “They always have been.”
After more than 30 years with the University of California, Ruiz’s relationship UC Merced is coming to an end. He retires June 30.
Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management Jill Orcutt credits Ruiz for shaping the UC Merced so many people know and love today.
“His sensitivity to the unique needs of students and families in the San Joaquin Valley and his talent for empowering students to believe they can succeed have made a difference here and throughout the region,” she said.
Ruiz understands the Valley’s distinct culture and the needs of the young people living here. Raised in the South Valley community of Goshen, he hasn’t forgotten what it was like to find his own way.
“My parents were great, but having had little formal education themselves, they didn’t understand education,” he said. “They didn’t feel comfortable in school settings, so they didn’t go to teacher conferences or events.”
Ruiz went from the College of the Sequoias to Fresno State, studying social work. He knew early on he wanted to make a difference regionally, and social work made sense. But it was at the University of California where he’d make the greatest social impact.
He helped open the UC Office of the President’s Office of Relations with Schools in Fresno in 1986, when UC officials decided the lack of Central Valley representation in the system was intolerable. He’d traveled Highway 99 and the backroads through rural communities to talk with educators and students about the doors that could open for them if they attended college.
Much of his outreach work was at the school level — helping administrators understand how to get the courses they offered approved to be counted toward UC applications. The idea that students with great potential weren’t applying or enrolling in the system motivated him and fueled his tireless efforts.
“If a student wants to go someplace other than a UC, that’s great,” he said. “What I couldn’t stand — and still can’t — is that students right here in the valley either did not know what a UC education is or wanted a UC education but didn’t think they could get it. They have a right to a UC education, and I’ve spent my life making sure students understand they owe it to themselves to go for it.”
Ruiz is proud of how UC Merced has grown and evolved over the years.
“I wasn’t necessarily interested in building a university,” he said. “My main interest was access and opportunity and making sure that all students had a fair opportunity to prepare and enroll in higher education, especially a campus of the University of California. I think we’ve done that.”