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An Unlikely Reunion

For three former California residents who grew up together, life comes full circle at Illinois.

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Here’s a statistical question. Consider two young girls growing up on the same block on Rosewood Avenue in Inglewood, Calif., in the 1990s. They’re the same age, both daughters of blue-collar immigrants, and attend the same schools. One of them, a clarinetist, sits directly in front of the other, a saxophonist, in the middle school band.

They attend different high schools. By then, one says, going to college was “a process we didn’t know existed.” Their parents never attended college, and, in their neighborhood, not even a high school diploma was taken for granted.

What are the odds, then, that both of these uncertain young women, carried along by a confluence of determination and unlikely events independent of each other, would not only eventually go to college, but earn doctoral degrees at the same time?

Now ask yourself this: What are the chances of these two meeting again in 2014, some 2,000 miles from Inglewood on the campus of the University of Illinois, having not only unknowingly applied to the same post-doctoral program, but having been accepted at the same time, and even assigned the same office in the Department of Latina/Latino Studies?

Here’s another twist: What are the chances that a five-minute walk from their office, in the English Building, studies another former Inglewood resident of virtually the same background—the daughter of immigrants, same age, same neighborhood, attended the same schools, and was, in fact, a close friend of one of the other two—working toward her doctoral degree?

For the non-statisticians among us, let’s just say it’s about as likely as snow in Los Angeles on Independence Day. But meet Ana Soltero Lopez, Claudia Sandoval, and Ariana Ruiz, who stand as more proof that anything is possible at the University of Illinois.

Lopez, the aforementioned former clarinetist, is spending her year-long post-doctoral program studying the education experiences of undocumented immigrants. Sandoval, the former saxophonist, is spending her post-doctoral program studying black-Latino relations in the Midwest.

During the week, Sandoval (whose husband is in Chicago) rooms with Ruiz, who is studying Latina literature as she wraps up her doctoral degree in English. For the three former southern California residents, their unexpected reunion is as rewarding as it is remarkable.

“We all have memories of each other,” Sandoval says. “We all know so many of the same people, we all got our hair done at the same place. We had the same teachers. If there was a fight, we would remember it just the same. All of that has made for a smooth bonding experience. It’s made the experience in Urbana much more pleasant than going in and not knowing anybody.”

Back where this story begins, in Inglewood, Lopez and Sandoval grew up virtually within sight of each other. Ruiz lived just a few minutes’ walk away. Sandoval and Ruiz were good friends—like Lucy and Ethel from I Love Lucy, they joke—while Lopez, a year behind in school, was a familiar face. Lopez and Sandoval went to Beulah Payne Elementary together, and all three attended Crozier Middle School.

After that, their stories begin to separate. Lopez and Ruiz went to Inglewood High School, while Sandoval went to Westchester High.

Sandoval’s father was a gardener, and her mother cleaned houses. Sandoval’s mother didn’t know much about college, but she knew what life was like without it. So she would bring Sandoval to help clean, saying, “You don’t have to go to college, but expect to do this work for the rest of your life if you don’t,’” Sandoval recalls.

Sandoval’s older sister, the first in their family to attend college, encouraged Sandoval to attend events such as an annual science outreach program at nearby California State University, Northridge, designed to expose children to college.

Sandoval jokes that none of her former teachers would have believed she would someday earn a PhD, but she applied for college anyway, and was accepted at the University of California-Los Angeles, where she received a tuition waiver. She caught on at UCLA (born in Mexico, she became a naturalized citizen on her first day of college), where she was named a McNair Research Scholar, which prepares students for graduate school.

In fall 2006, she entered graduate school at the University of Chicago. Upon earning her PhD, she applied to U of I’s post-doctoral program because she had grown fond of Illinois and wanted to maintain her research in Chicago. She knew that her old friend, Ruiz, was at U of I, but she had no idea that her former neighbor and bandmate, Lopez, would be there until shortly before they reunited on campus, and Lopez sent her an email saying, “I know you!”

Lopez, born outside the country, was an undocumented resident until high school. As her friends discussed post-high school plans, she was saddled by the knowledge that her residency status likely eclipsed any hopes of college.

“Fortunately, I had a few gems of mentors who challenged this idea ingrained in me that graduating from high school is going to be the biggest thing that I do,” Lopez says. She took advanced placement and honors courses. And then, during her senior year at Inglewood High, she obtained her residency.

All of a sudden, Lopez realized that college was a real possibility. She applied for financial aid and sent out college applications. Rushing, she says she didn’t know what she was doing. She laughs at the irony of how she now advises high school students to research colleges before deciding where to attend.

“I chose the University of California-Santa Barbara because it sat on the ocean,” Lopez says, with a laugh. It turned out to be a fit. Upon graduating from Santa Barbara, she went on to earn her doctoral degree in education at UCLA.

While researching post-doctoral programs, Lopez liked how many faculty at Illinois studied issues of immigration, which was her research focus. A friend of hers from UCLA who was studying in U of I’s Department of Sociology vouched for the University, and by the time Lopez was accepted, U of I was her top choice.

Ruiz was born and raised in Los Angeles by her parents who came to the country hoping to provide their children with new opportunities. They expected her to go to college, but they only had a vague idea what it meant.

“My parents didn’t necessarily know the process of getting into college,” Ruiz recalls. “They didn’t really know when applications were due, or the difference between the California State University or the University of California. They just knew that there was a thing called college, and that to kind of have access to social mobility, their child had to go.”

Ruiz was accepted to the University of California-Santa Cruz, but at first she didn’t feel prepared. There were days as a freshman, she recalled, that she wondered how she’d make it through the next four years. By bearing down on her studies, however, the literature major graduated with hopes for even more education.

Her academic advisor connected Ruiz with Richard Rodriguez, an English professor at U of I who attended graduate school at Santa Cruz. Rodriguez sold her on U of I’s English and Latina/Latino studies programs, and soon she was accepted to the U of I with dreams of earning her doctoral degree. For the next few years she never met anyone from Inglewood in Urbana-Champaign—until fall 2014.

The reunion of the three women likely will be relatively short, as Lopez’s and Sandoval’s post-doctoral program concludes this spring, and Ruiz hopes to be moving on soon, too. But for now, they are enjoying the resumption of a day-to-day life together. One of the group’s primary tasks of this past fall, for example, was preparing Lopez for life in the Midwest. That meant showing her where to obtain a winter coat and boots, and telling her what to do when a tornado siren goes off.

Watching out for Lopez, in fact, whom the other two kiddingly regard as the younger one, is an echo of the old days, too. Lopez recalls a moment in high school when she became upset at something during a band event. She can’t recall what it was, but she does remember a “sweet, quiet girl” coming over to console her.

So, when Sandoval and Lopez reestablished their connection in 2014, and Sandoval told Lopez that there was another woman on campus from Inglewood, Lopez found herself wondering what happened to that sweet girl from high school. Then they finally met, and sure enough, Lopez recognized her—it was Ariana Ruiz

By Dave Evensen
Winter 2015