Ruben Alonzo, an MIT junior who wants to use his own escape from poverty as a model for improving the lives of at-risk youth through education, has been awarded a 2010 Harry S. Truman Scholarship.
Alonzo, an economics major from Crystal City, Texas, is among approximately 60 students nationwide selected as winners of the $30,000 graduate scholarship. Awarded each year, the scholarships aim to find and recognize college juniors with exceptional leadership potential who are committed to careers in public service.
Alonzo seeks to use his talent and skills to help address the U.S. high-school dropout crisis and to empower young students to become role models — issues with which he is all too familiar.
“Ruben’s story goes far beyond that of just an impressively informed and passionate student at MIT,” Professor Anne McCants, chair of MIT’s Truman Selection Committee, and Kimberly Benard, MIT’s program advisor for distinguished fellowships, wrote in their letter of nomination. “Ruben’s story is one about overcoming the odds of a background that suggested he would not, perhaps even could not succeed. What has put him at the top of our Truman Scholarship nominee cohort this year is the same drive that led him from the depths of poverty: an abiding reverence for education and dedication to helping others.”
Alonzo grew up in rural Zavala County, Texas, whose per-capita income of $10,034 in 1999 put it among the 25 poorest counties in the United States. Alonzo’s family still skirted the fringes of poverty despite his father’s job as a math teacher; to supplement their income, Alonzo and his family members worked as migrant farmers in North Dakota and Minnesota during the summer months. This was when Alonzo developed an appreciation for math; to help the time pass, his father promised him a few cents for every vegetable he picked. Very quickly, Alonzo learned to track and then to estimate how much money he could make over the course of a hot day in the sun. His father recognized Alonzo’s native quantitative skills and strove to encourage them.
Alonzo’s world was transformed dramatically when he was 14 and his father passed away. Before dying, Alonzo’s father told him to take care of his two sisters and mother, a pledge that he takes extremely seriously. His brother had already succumbed to the cycle of poverty and desperation in Zavala County and is currently serving a six-year prison sentence for drug dealing. Alonzo and his sisters supported each other and clung to education as a way to rise above poverty. His older sister will graduate this year from Texas A&M in Ocean Engineering, and his younger sister just started her degree program at Texas A&M International University.
At MIT, Alonzo has maintained a solid 4.5 GPA while engaging in numerous activities focused on improving literacy among disadvantaged youths both locally and abroad. As a freshman, Alonzo was a founding member of Real Men Read, an organization that pairs strong male role models from MIT with struggling students from disadvantaged schools in Boston. The program inspired Alonzo to partner with friends to create Project LEAD (Leadership Enrichment and Ambassador Development), which provides both original programming and individual mentorship for underperforming youths in the Cambridge public schools. In the summer between his sophomore and junior years, Alonzo worked in Thailand, helping a school implement a new computer-based system for teaching math.
After he gets his MIT degree, Alonzo plans to serve in Teach for America for two years — preferably returning to the troubled Southwest Texas school system from which he graduated. Eventually, he hopes to pursue a doctorate in educational leadership before returning to the Southwest, where he wants to start a nonprofit that will help improve education.
“I made it this far because I had people who believed in me. They believed in me just like I believe in every single young student in America. I am dedicated to bridging the gaps between the academically/economically privileged and the disenfranchised,” Alonzo said. “Change has to start somewhere, and for me it starts back home. It starts in Texas. I am a community servant and a crusader for social change. The Truman Scholarship will open up doors for me to make this change possible.”