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Social work graduate pursues career helping Wisconsin youth

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: Ricky Ruel currently is completing an internship in social work with the Chippewa County Department of Human Services, where he is gaining the exact type of experience that his Title IV-E child welfare training has prepared him to do as a practitioner in the state of Wisconsin. (Photo by Bill Hoepner)

The Blugold Beginnings program at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire provides students from historically excluded and first-generation populations the extra campus support that some need to succeed. Many graduates have said they owe their degrees, in part, to the connections they established in the program.

For graduating social work major Ricky Ruel, working with community youth as a Blugold Beginnings mentor also provided him the path to his future career as a child welfare practitioner.

“I was previously a criminal justice major,” the Beaver Dam native says. “But through mentoring students in area schools, I was able to listen to children’s stories, hear what they have to say about their experiences, and it really moved me.”

Ruel says coming from a similar background as a student of color who had experienced poverty as a child, these kids’ stories helped reshape his conception of social work, and he changed his major as a sophomore.

“I would say that before coming to college I had a somewhat negative impression of social workers and what they do, but learning more about the field as a student clarified for me that I can have a positive impact in the lives of kids as a social worker.”

Ruel is enrolled in Title IV-E training in child welfare, a federal program designed to educate and train graduate and undergraduate-level social work students to work as practitioners in public child welfare at the state level.

Service-oriented high-impact experiences

Ruel enters the social work field with a host of undergraduate experiences. Along with Blugold Beginnings, Ruel worked as a peer advisor in the Advising, Retention and Career Center (ARCC), reviewing student resumes and cover letters and recommending job openings.

“I started as a freshman; it was my first job in an office type of setting,” he says. “All of the staff and my supervisor, Staci Heidtke, really showed me the ropes of working in a professional setting, how to take on responsibilities, meet deadlines and really just how to conduct myself. I learned so much in that job.”

As a sophomore, Ruel took part in UW-Eau Claire’s Alternative Spring Break program. The annual immersion experience in Indianapolis, called “From servant leadership to social justice,” accepts a group of 20 Blugold applicants each year. The outreach project focuses on homeless and other at-risk populations, and offers students hands-on service projects and meaningful discussions about servant leadership and social justice with a wide range of city leaders.

“The whole trip reinforced for me that I want to pursue social work,” Ruel says about what he calls a major growth experience.

“Stepping outside of my comfort zone on the trip, putting myself in any position where I am uncomfortable, that's when I learn the most. I’ve learned to be okay with feeling uncomfortable,” he says.

Katy Rand, coordinator for student leadership in the Activities, Involvement and Leadership office, runs the Alternative Spring Break and says Ruel is one of the students whose inspiration keeps her going.

“Ricky is a unique student who reaffirms why I got into the field of student affairs,” Rand says. “He is a fun-loving, hardworking, and kind person who is always looking to better himself and those around him. He is committed to personal and professional growth, and embraces every opportunity as a learning experience.”

In addition to his fall classes and a social work internship with Chippewa County, Ruel also does mentoring work with the Power of Perception, an Eau Claire-based community outreach program for African American and biracial students in district schools, grades 6-12, founded by UW-Eau Claire alumnus and former staff member Dennis Beale.

“I met Dennis when I was a freshman when he was working with Blugold Beginnings. The first thing he helped me with was getting my financial aid all figured out,” he says. “Over time, he became that person who would help me with whatever issue I was having, or simply offer advice and encouragement. I never had an older brother, but that’s really what it was like in many ways,” Ruel says.

Beale notes Ruel’s dedication as a role model and advocate for youth.

“Ricky is one of the most dependable young men I've had the pleasure to mentor,” Beale says. “He always makes it a priority to show up when he's committed to something. He is so genuine and has a very kind heart, always willing to help others. He will be a great asset wherever he goes.”

Grateful for academic, financial and family support

Ruel is quick to acknowledge all the people and programs he feels supported his academic and personal success as a Blugold, and is grateful for the UW-Eau Claire Foundation and the financial assistance that made his dream of college a reality.

“The social work department as a whole offered me so much support and opportunity. I would not be where I am today without the relationships I have with my professors, relationships I expect will be lifelong,” Ruel says.

One of those professors, Joshua Potter-Efron, a clinical assistant professor of social work, says Ruel is an exceptional student whose “passion, humanity and commitment to social justice are humbling.”

“Many people have the opportunity to ‘find themselves’ in college and many may do so by challenging authority,” Potter-Efron says. “It is a rare individual, however, who seeks to find a path that not only challenges but then works hand in hand with their institution to make it a more equitable and fair institution for those who follow. Ricardo has done just that.”

True to that humble nature, Ruel passes the credit for much of his success to those who gave him the "leg up" he needed.

“I owe a huge thanks to the Foundation and all the work they do for students like me,” Ruel says. “Yes, I did the hard work in school, but it was the scholarships and grants I received that allowed me to stay in college to reach my goals.”

“Students who look like me just aren’t set up by society to succeed in the same ways, so scholarships recognizing our potential and providing the opportunity to succeed? That’s huge.”

Ruel is a second-generation American-born citizen; his parents were born in the U.S. after his grandparents immigrated from Mexico. As the first in his family to graduate from college, Ruel looks forward to “breaking a generational cycle of hardship,” as he puts it.

“My parents had to sacrifice a lot to get our family in the position where I could end up where I am today,” he says. “They worked a lot of hard labor jobs, work that may not have been the most pleasant types of jobs — they gave up a lot of things for us.

“Getting here, actually graduating is really my way of honoring them,” he says. “Walking across that stage and being able to give them my diploma will be my way of thanking them for everything they’ve done for me.”