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Admissions Director Reflects on Decades of Promoting UC Merced

June 19, 2019
Man in business suits gestures while addressing a crowd of college students
Director of Admissions Encarnación “Chon” Ruiz takes pride in bringing bright, hard-working students to UC Merced.

There’s something about a UC Merced student that’s just different. Different from your average “college kid” and different from other students in the University of California system. Bobcats are hard-working, focused and driven.

Encarnación “Chon” Ruiz gets some of the credit for that difference.

As UC Merced’s founding director of admissions and outreach, Ruiz has had a hand in all aspects of student recruitment, starting even before the university opened. He traveled up and down the Valley singing the praises of the UC’s newest campus when the site was still a golf course. Now he leads a team of 26 employees who have grown student enrollment to almost 9,000 this fall.

Pioneering. Entrepreneurial. Intrepid.

These words are often used to describe UC Merced students, but they fit the admissions efforts as well.

“Our first admissions campaign was called ‘open your mind,’” Ruiz recalled. “That’s what we were asking everyone to do — to consider the possibilities and opportunities of a new research university right here in the San Joaquin Valley.”

Jessica “JaeJae” Julian remembers that campaign well. She joined Merced’s pioneering class in 2005. After college, she joined Ruiz in the Office of Admissions and now works with Alumni Relations.

She recalls Ruiz giving out his number to students and their families, making sure they knew how to reach him.

“Relationships are important to him,” she said. “They always have been.”

After more than 30 years with the University of California, Ruiz’s relationship with UC Merced is coming to an end. He retires June 30.

The campus and community will gather to celebrate his career and dedication from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 26, at the Downtown Campus Center. All are invited. Please register online.

Man in business suits gestures while addressing a crowd
Ruiz will retire at the end of June, after more than 30 years of UC service.

The Best. The Brightest. The Hardest Workers.

An open invitation suits Ruiz well. It’s how he views UC Merced: an open invitation to every bright, hard-working high school graduate.

But his passion has always been in extending that invitation to the farthest corners of the Valley.

Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management Jill Orcutt credits Ruiz for shaping the UC Merced so many people know and love today.

“His sensitivity to the unique needs of students and families in the San Joaquin Valley and his talent for empowering students to believe they can succeed have made a difference here and throughout the region,” she said.

Ruiz understands the Valley’s distinct culture and the needs of the young people living here. Raised in the South Valley community of Goshen, he hasn’t forgotten what it was like to find his own way.

“My parents were great, but having had little formal education themselves, they didn’t understand education,” he said. “They didn’t feel comfortable in school settings, so they didn’t go to teacher conferences or events.”

Campus and community members are invited to celebrate the career of Encarnación “Chon” Ruiz from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 26, at the Downtown Campus Center.

Teaching the Teachers

Ruiz went from the College of the Sequoias to Fresno State, studying social work. He knew early on he wanted to make a difference regionally, and social work made sense. But it was at the University of California where he’d make the greatest social impact.

He helped open the UC Office of the President’s Office of Relations with Schools in Fresno in 1986, when UC officials decided the lack of Valley representation in the system was intolerable. He’d traveled Highway 99 and the backroads through rural communities to talk with educators and students about the doors that could open for them if they attended college.

Much of his outreach work was at the school level — helping administrators understand how to get the courses they offered approved to be counted toward UC applications. The idea that students with great potential weren’t applying or enrolling in the system motivated him and fueled his tireless efforts.

“If a student wants to go someplace other than a UC, that’s great,” he said. “What I couldn’t stand — and still can’t — is that students right here in the Valley either did not know what a UC education is or wanted a UC education but didn’t think they could get it. They have a right to a UC education, and I’ve spent my life making sure students understand they owe it to themselves to go for it.”

Julian remembers Ruiz telling her to “go for it,” not just as an incoming student but also as an employee. He encouraged her to advance her career and to pursue graduate school. “It’s hard to explain what it means to have someone see the best in you – as a student, alumna and colleague,” she said. “He helped me to believe in myself, to overcome my own doubts."

“I wasn’t necessarily interested in building a university. My main interest was access and opportunity.”

Encarnación “Chon” Ruiz

From Recruiter to Recruited

Ruiz’s tireless pursuit of qualified students on behalf of the University of California caught the eye of Founding Chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey. Tomlinson-Keasey was building a campus here in the Valley, and she knew exactly who she wanted as a partner in recruiting its first students.

Ruiz, however, wasn’t quick to join Tomlinson-Keasey’s team.

“I wasn’t necessarily interested in building a university,” he said. “My main interest was access and opportunity and making sure that all students had a fair opportunity to prepare and enroll in higher education, especially a campus of the University of California.”

Eventually, Tomlinson-Keasey helped Ruiz realize that UC Merced could provide that access and opportunity into the University of California, especially if he was steering the recruitment ship.The rest, as they say, is history.

Passing the Torch

Now, though, it’s time to look to the future. Ruiz is proud of how UC Merced has grown and evolved over the years.

And like a proud father, he’ll spend more time telling you about those following in his footsteps than he cares to tell about himself.

He’ll tell you about Dustin Noji and Ruben Lubers, both of whom hail from the Valley.

Ruiz first met Noji in 1998 at a UC outreach event in Fresno. Noji, who has worked with admissions and enrollment management here at UC Merced since 2009, will serve as interim director of Admissions beginning July 1. Lubers will support Noji as deputy director of Admissions, focusing on operations and technology.

The serendipity of events isn’t lost on Noji.

“Chon has taught us so much, and it’s because of him that we’re here today,” he said. “Had it not been for his outreach, neither my brothers nor I would have gone on to UCs. We weren’t even considering that. The impact he’s had on my life and the lives of others like me can’t be measured.”

As Ruiz considers his final days at UC Merced, he counts his blessings. He’s grateful for the support he’s gotten personally and professionally throughout his career. He’s grateful for the opportunity to alter the college-going culture in the San Joaquin Valley. He’s especially grateful to his wife, who has been there through it all.

Now it’s time to spend more time at home and less on the road, knowing that the university is in good hands.

“Dustin and Ruben are a dynamic duo,” Ruiz said. “I truly believe they have the knowledge and experience to beat me at my own game here. I’m excited to see how they move UC Merced forward.”