To say that 18-year-old Irving Ruiz beat the odds is an understatement.
He was raised by a single mother in a less-than-savory Glen Ellyn apartment complex.
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Irving Ruiz, 18Hometown: Glen Ellyn
School: Glenbard West High School, Wheaton College
Who inspires you? My mother
What book are you reading? "Enrique's Journey," by Sonia Nazario
What's on your iPod? Foo Fighters, Spanish music, some hip hop
The three words that best describe you: Motivated. Courageous. Respectful.
He grew up brooding and angry at his father's absence. He was a troublemaker during his elementary and middle school years. He started his freshman year at Glenbard West High School in a program for at-risk students who read two years below grade level.
And then, something clicked. Drawing upon the encouragement of his mother, as well as counselors and mentors, Irving turned his life around.
He stepped up to apply himself in school, and in May he graduated with a 4.1 grade-point average in his last semester.
He also became a leader and role model for his peers, as one of the founding members of Glenbard West's Multicultural Achievement Club and a church youth group leader at Iglesia De La Resurreccion in Wheaton.
This fall, he will not only be the first in his family to attend college, but will be doing so with a full ride to Wheaton College, where he wants to study developmental psychology to eventually work in law enforcement.
"I think everybody has the potential to achieve. It's up to them to find where that potential is," Irving said.
Only "a handful" of the 594 freshmen admitted to Wheaton this fall will have their full tuition covered, said Shawn Leftwich, director of admissions at the college. Irving's schooling will be paid by a combination of financial aid and scholarships, Leftwich said.
"What we saw in him is that he really wanted to become someone," she said. "He was determined to do all he could to go to college."
Irving and his 12-year-old sister, Areli, were born in the United States after their parents, both Mexican immigrants, met here. Irving's mother, Inocencia Escobar, said she always pushed her kids to do well in school and make something of themselves.
"I have focused on giving support to my children and keep moving forward with them," said Escobar, who works at McDonald's. She and her husband divorced when Irving was 5 years old, and the children have occasional contact with their father, she said.
Irving said not having his dad around made him act up and be defiant when he was younger.
"When my parents split up I became a tough kid. I had a tough time opening up," said Irving, who was in English as a Second Language classes until the sixth grade.
But he never got into serious trouble, resisting the pull to join gangs, unlike some of his peers, he said.
"Growing up I saw a lot of Hispanic kids getting involved in gangs. Some of the kids around here, their older brothers were involved," he said. "My parents were always telling me to watch out, not to get in trouble."
Matthew Soerens, who works as a U.S. church training specialist for World Relief, met Irving five years ago when he moved into Parkside Apartments, where the organization settles refugees.
"Irving didn't have a good idea of what college meant exactly. When I met him, he talked about working at Chili's and Friday's," he said. "He definitely was not the kid most middle schools would have picked to go to a prestigious college on a full ride."
About a third of the residents of Parkside Apartments come from Mexico, and half or so are refugees from all over the world, Soerens said.
"There are gangs, there are lots of drugs, even though middle-class people do drugs, too," he said. "Alcohol abuse is pretty blatant, especially in the summer (when) on any given night there are those who are drinking way more than is healthy.
"Irving definitely had the option of going in the wrong direction -- and that is probably the default option for many in our neighborhood -- but he was determined not to do that."
Kate Culloton, Irving's counselor for four years at Glenbard West, said Irving worked hard to achieve his goals, slowly improving his grades.
"School was not easy for him," Culloton said. "In a really extraordinary way, he has set his sights in making improvements in himself. He did it pretty steadily -- it wasn't a quick turnaround."
A turning point for Irving was Bridge, a summer program at Wheaton College that he attended his sophomore and junior years after Soerens pushed him to apply for it.
Bridge is open to students who are either racial minorities, first-generation college-bound, or low-income. Irving fit all three categories.
"Irving is social in the way that he is a very compassionate guy by nature, he is very perceptive of other people's situation," said Sado Park, Irving's residence director for Bridge. "He embraced the different challenges that came during the program. He showed a lot of initiative to step up academically, to step up in the ways that we pushed him to."
Irving said that after his sophomore year and attending Bridge, he realized he wanted to push himself harder.
"I started to think I should challenge myself for the next year," he said. "My desire to challenge myself came from my mom. She did a lot of crazy stuff for us to have a roof over our head, food and clothing."
He wants to work in law enforcement, he said, because he wants to make a difference in other people's lives, especially children who come from challenging backgrounds like his.
"I want to help out when nobody wants to stand up for what's right," he said.
Irving, who has been working at Panera Bread three days a week for the past two years, already is a role model for the kids in his neighborhood.
"(Irving) realized that a lot of these kids look up to him and see him as a role model," Soerens said. "He's taken that really to heart. He helps younger kids. He encourages them to stop playing video games and go do homework, read a book.
"It's been great for our neighborhood to have Irving Ruiz, because we can tell these little kids, 'You can go to college, too. It's not impossible.'"
• Elena Ferrarin wrote today's column. She and Kimberly Pohl always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to email@example.com or call our new Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.