MILWAUKEE — Anique Ruiz will not let her support systems and colleagues go unsung, starting with her family.
"For me and for both of my parents, thinking about my dad with this being Latinx heritage month, I really feel proud that I'm able to continue their legacy of faith, of family, of education and fulfill the dreams that they had for us a long time ago," Ruiz shaed.
The granddaughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, Ruiz is a graduate of both Marquette and the UW-Milwaukee. As a minority in the classroom, Ruiz said the support systems she found in Upward Bound at Marquette and the Roberto Hernandez Center at UWM were crucial to her success.
"As a Latina woman I needed to feel that sense of belonging," she said. "I would be one of the only ones, if not the only, Latina in my class... It was very affirming to me to be connected to the center and also have other resources that made my education worthwhile."
Now as the the Wisconsin Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (WiscAMP) STEM-Inspire program manager, Ruiz gets to help and support students in the same way she was.
"In a way, the way I run the WiscAMP program is akin to a lot of the resources I got," she said. "For me, it's like coming full circle. For me it's like family."
The program aims to increase diversity in STEM fields and support students while they're in school. Each year 30 to 35 students from underrepresented backgrounds take part in the program. It also provides students with practical experience in their chosen fields.
"Students have presented their research at major conferences, those are the real-life, professional experiences that I think this program introduces students to," said UWM Vice Chancellor of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Chia Vang about the successes over the more than a decade the program has existed on campus.
Vang called Ruiz the glue that holds the program together.
"The mentoring, the program development, getting speakers all kinds of ways in which she helps students to develop professional skills," Vang shared about Ruiz. "There are times when students come and talk to her about issues in their family life, they don't have to explain to her. She just comes across as someone who gets it. And who can find three, four options to any problem.
Some of those problems she's working on solutions to are the unique challenges that minority students, in particular Latino students, face going into STEM fields.
"The first one is retaining those students. Once we accept them, how do we help them to persist academically in a really rigorous major," Ruiz said.
While improvements have been made, across the county Hispanic students make up just 12% of students earning bachelor's degrees in a STEM field.
She also said it's important to create spaces around campus and in every program where all students feel like they belong.
"Not just in my office, but in the various STEM departments that give the students a sense of belonging and trust where they know that they can talk to faculty, they can talk to their advisers," Ruiz said.
From faculty mentors to collaborating with other departments, Ruiz said she pulls on resources campus wide to make sure students in the program are successful and have the right tools to succeed.
She even collaborates with one of the resources that she relied on as a student, the Roberto Hernandez Center.
"Anique and I have a similar affinity for working with students, being involved in the community," Director of Roberto Hernandez Center Alberto Maldonado said.
Maldonado said programs like STEM-inspire are critical for students on campus.
"It's very much needed because the representation isn't necessarily out there in the work force. So for students to see the possibilities, to connect with what they're good at academically, what their passions are, and to be able to put those together," he said.
For Ruiz, the best part of the job is seeing the students she works with flourish.
"Helping students to succeed, helping them to grow, helping them to realize their power, their agency in creating change for themselves and then creating that sense of belonging," Ruiz said about what brings her joy leading the program. "I think that legacy will endure far after our program may end."
And she says, if the job is done right, there won't be a need for the program in the future.
"If I serve my students right and if we serve the students right, then we won't need a WiscAMP STEM-Inspired program. Many of these grant funded programs come about because there were certain racial or ethnic groups of students or there wasn't gender diversity in STEM, so they came about to solve a problem," Ruiz said. "The whole focus of these programs, eventually, is for the mission of them to be institutionalized such that we don't need these programs any more. So we have the diversity, we have the equity and inclusion that we need both at the institution but also out in the industry and in graduate schools."
Until then, she's proud to encourage students of all backgrounds to pursue STEM fields.
Javier Retana has been fascinated with construction from a young age when he would follow his dad around the construction sites he worked at.
"My dad is a mason by trade," Retana shared. "I fell in love with the trade. But my dad, as an immigrant, he always instilled in me he didn't come to this country for me to do the same thing that he does. So he always guided me to go to school."
Which is how Retana ended up at UWM studying civil engineering.
"I chose civil engineering because it was the closest things to construction a degree could get me," he said with a smile.
Jose Trujillo shared that he comes form a long line of engineers, but he's the first in his family to go to college in the United States. He's studying electrical engineering at UWM.
Trujillo said academics were never something he really struggled with, but navigating the education system did present challenges.
"I struggled with motivation, lack of diversity, not feeling like I belonged in an institution," Trujillo said.
Diego Garcia, also a civil engineering major, also noticed a lack of diversity in his STEM classes. He and fellow students started a chapter of the Society of Hispanic Engineers on campus
"The community that we have isn't that big, but we still have a community here," Garcia said.
Retana, Trujillo and Garcia have all found community and support through WiscAMP STEM-Inspire.
"It was difficult to see myself in higher education. But coming to UWM and meeting Anique and especially all the different things she's helped me with has been very refreshing," Retana shared.
Trujillo said the program has helped him stay motivated as he pursues his dream.
"Programs like STEM-Inspire have helped me find that potential and also give back to my community," Trujillo said.
For Garcia the program is the encouragement he needs to help him achieve his degree.
"I didn't start here to not finish. If it wasn't for Anique, I don't think I'd be this far in my career," Garcia said.