Deborah Ruiz never thought she would be able to attend college because of the financial cost.
But growing up in Tucson, she always dreamed of being a Wildcat.
There is no one path to a college degree, but Ruiz definitely took the road less travelled. Her story is one of personal persistence, grit and determination. A comeback story for the ages. She did it and she did it in style. On Dec. 17, Ruiz is graduating from the School of Art with a BFA in Illustration + Design. She is the Outstanding Senior, not only for the School of Art, but for the College of Fine Arts.
Ruiz was raised in Tucson, the youngest of seven.
“I moved out when I was 15,” she said. “My sophomore year, my parents got divorced. I took it extremely hard. We lost our house; our stuff was auctioned off. We were left with little to nothing. It wasn’t an option to live with either one of my parents. I had to go out on my own. I had to grow up really fast.
“My other siblings were able to have that home life and the teenager life; I didn’t get that.”
In 2000, she moved to Phoenix, returning to Tucson eight years later.
“For me growing up in Tucson, I was always like, ‘Oh man, I wish I could be a Wildcat.’ It was my parents’ dream too. But I never thought I’d be able to go to college because I didn’t know how I was going to afford it.”
For years, she worked and saved. She waited on tables and bartended at Sakura and Fleming’s. In her mid-20s, she set out on a plan to make her dream come true. First she got her GED. Then she enrolled at Pima Community College.
“I decided that I was going to prove myself. If I’m going to be in this, I’m going to kick ass in it.”
She graduated from Pima earning her Associate of Arts degree in 2017 with highest academic honors.
“I really tried to excel and show myself that even if it’s this late in my life, it’s never too late.”
And so, the stage was set for Ruiz to fulfill her destiny and start her life at the School of Art.
But there was still the matter of money. She saved money by attending a community college and from 13 years of working, but she also applied for scholarships. Many scholarships. She applied for 35 in 2019 and 2020, receiving nine.
“Even if it was only for $100 … everything counted.”
In the fall of 2018. Ruiz began attending classes in the highly regarded Illustration + Design program at the School of Art. She was almost immediately hired as a student employee to do graphic design on campus for the Wildcat Club, a group that caters to donors to the athletic department.
Faculty and staff noticed Ruiz as someone who was active in her school and community.
“Her engagement in the School of Art is outstanding,” wrote Assistant Director and Professor Karen Zimmermann in her nominating letter. “She has participated virtually in every School of Art event. Exhibitions, community events, volunteer opportunities, field trips, Visiting Artist lectures — she has attended them all.”
Ruiz has been an active student member of the national professional organization— American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), as well as a member of the Center for Creative Photography, Wildcat Club, the Rialto, and the Loft Cinema. She supports other students by attending their art openings, going to Pima Community College Art exhibits, and buying art from local artists.
“I love everything art. I think it’s also important to support each other as artists. Plus, it’s just nice to just dive into the culture, seeing how diverse it is. Tucson really has a passion for the arts. And I just like to just take it in as much as I can, especially since a lot of the events that we have are free. Why pass up on something like that? Plus, it’s nice to see your peers and instructors in a different setting where you can see these people just as artists and not as a peer or an instructor.”
She was cruising right along with her academic career, learning new skills, making new art. In the spring of 2019, she finished the school year on the Dean’s List with the highest academic distinctions. In the fall, she earned the School of Art’s Creative Achievement Award.
Cut to March 2020. It was a big month for Ruiz. She had just taken on a new and exciting job with Arizona Athletics as the graphic designer for football recruiting, working on presentations for the coaching staff and digital content for social media.
“It was actually a dream to work in athletics cause I grew up in the stadium. My dad, Isaac, was the Spanish radio broadcaster in Tucson for the Arizona games. So, I have always had a passion for athletics.”
At the same time, she was handed another major responsibility. Her ailing mother, Zoë, moved into Ruiz’s home. Ruiz, a college senior, had to provide and find care for her mother. Then the coronavirus hit, shutting down much of the campus. When most people were figuring out how to work Zoom, Ruiz was researching health care facilities to place her mom.
A facility was found in August, but the costs were too much to bear. “Right now, she’s staying at my sister’s until I finish school. And then she’s going to come back with me again.”
That’s a lot of stress. For Ruiz, she turns to art as a stress reliever. Before COVID, Ruiz would go to the University of Arizona Museum of Art or the Center for Creative Photography during her breaks to decompress from classes. Now she checks out the exhibitions online and, when she has some spare time, she likes to run.
Through it all, Ruiz continued to create and produce winning works of graphic design. Inspired by Andy Warhol’s use of multimedia, Ruiz placed works in the 2020 BFA Exhibition, Picturing 2020 at UAMA and even the 27th International Poster Biennale at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. For her capstone, she investigated a concept for an interactive app that would allow students to explore the principles of design.
She appreciates all of the staff and faculty who helped her along the way. People like School of Art Director Colin Blakely (for his passion for photography and his mentoring), Simon Hinchliffe (for their inside joke about ‘kerning’), Kelly Leslie (for her empathy and understanding), Karen Zimmermann (for being awesome) and advisor Ashley Rubin (for being the best).
On Dec. 17, Ruiz will hit another major milestone by earning her BFA. The former high school dropout will be a college graduate with a 4.0 GPA. All of her hard work scrimping and saving has paid off.
“I just love learning, so I feel kind of sad that it’s coming to an end, but I’m going to be applying to grad school at U of A, so I’m hoping I can continue my journey.”
“I’m grateful to say that I am finishing this degree with no student debt.”