Gilbert senior Judith Ruiz-Ortiz about to make history in her family

Judith Ruiz-Ortiz tells her story of moving through Gilbert Schools with enthusiasm and a smile on her face. Even when she talks about the difficult times, there’s a nonchalance in her voice, almost as if her journey wasn’t out of the ordinary.

That’s the thing though; it wasn’t typical. Or easy. It was quite the opposite, actually, but that’s now a point of pride for the Gilbert High School senior who is less than a year away from embarking on a new voyage.

She’s a first generation American. And, soon enough, she’ll be a first generation college student too. You better believe that fact puts an extra skip in her step.

“I’ll be the first one in my family to go to college,” Judith says. “That puts a lot of pressure on me, but that’s OK. I’m excited for it.”

Let’s back up a few years, all the way back to 2010 when Judith entered kindergarten at Gilbert Elementary. Starting school is a scary time for all 5 and 6 year olds, but throw in the fact that Judith didn’t speak English and you get a better sense of what she was up against. Spanish was the language spoken in her home and it still is to this day, so learning in school fell in line behind simply trying to understand what was being said.

“Those first years were hard,” Judith admits. “We spoke Spanish at home and then I had a babysitter and I spoke Spanish. I didn’t have a lot of friends and my mom couldn’t help me so, yeah, it was really hard.”

The one thing about Judith though is that she always smiled. That’s what Gilbert Elementary Principal Staci Edwards remembers the most about Judith’s time in her building.

“She was always sweet and always happy,” Edwards says. “She was quiet because communication wasn’t easy for her, but she was a kiddo you wanted in your room.”

By the second grade, Judith says she had learned enough English to be able to get her point across in class. It was in the third grade that Judith was able to read English by herself after extensive help from then district English Language Learner coordinator Jill Moore, and her educational trajectory only rose higher and higher as the years went on.

The determination she shows in the classroom is a big reason why she now finds herself on a path toward college. Things might not always click for her as quickly as other students, but she never backs down from a challenge and that’s paid dividends.

“I’ve worked with Judith for five years and she really works hard for what she gets, and you can tell she’s proud of it,” Lisa Burianek, the current Gilbert District ELL Coordinator, says. “She works really well in groups and on her own, and she’s really good about asking questions and advocating for herself.”

As recently as a year ago, college really wasn’t on Judith’s radar. But as a junior, she learned how to apply for scholarships and to colleges, and her interest was peaked. She eventually applied to Iowa State, and when she received her acceptance letter she knew all of the effort was worth it.

“Judith is an example of a hard-working, friendly student for everybody,” Gilbert High School Principal Cindy Bassett says. “The fact that she’s the first person in her family to go to college and breaking barriers is amazing. She’s a model student for anybody.”

Judith is unsure of what she wants to study in college. This past summer, she took classes to become a certified interpreter and that’s a possibility for her future. She also enjoys working with kids and she says — who knows? — teaching may be what she gravitates toward.

Becoming an interpreter takes on a special meaning for Judith. Her parents, Antonia and Carlos, migrated from Puebla, Mexico, to central Iowa more than 20 years ago to better their lives and the lives of their children, and a few years later Judith came along. She sees how hard her parents work to give her a better life, and she knows it has come with a price. Antonia and Carlos can understand some English, but they aren’t fluent. And so she’s taken on the role of interpreting when her parents are in certain settings, such as at the doctor’s office. She’d like to do that for other non-English speakers as well.

“I want to help others who are in situations like my family,” she says. “My mom will go to the doctor and I interpret … sometimes they say something and she’ll say, ‘Yeah, I understand,’ but then she’ll have no clue what was said.”

Judith’s parents weren’t afforded the same opportunities she’s had at Gilbert. She says neither of her parents reached high school when they were kids in Mexico; they were forced to work at an early age to try to help provide for their families.

Judith knows her parents are proud of her for what she’s accomplished and what she’ll continue to accomplish in the future. She would like them to know the feeling is mutual.

“I’m very thankful,” she says. “I know my dad works really hard and I’m just so thankful they came here for me to have a better future. We don’t have to struggle like they did.

“They’re very, very excited for me, and they’re happy and proud. They say things like, ‘Wow, we raised her!’ It’s pretty neat.”

It’s the American Dream. Judith has seen it. She’s lived it. And she’ll continue to enjoy it on campus in Ames next fall.