Since transferring from Texas A&M to St. Thomas, Tommie Award finalist Viviana Ruiz ’23 has embodied a culture of encounter. The communication studies and Catholic studies double major is an intern at the Habiger Institute for Catholic Leadership, a Duc in Altum core team member in Campus Ministry, and a former percussionist in the St. Thomas band.
The Newsroom recently caught up with Ruiz and asked her about everything from her transfer experience to her research interests and plans for after graduation. Here are the highlights from our conversation.
The final Tommie Award vote takes place Feb. 8-10.
What was your experience transferring from Texas A&M to St. Thomas?
I don’t think people actually realize how difficult it is to transfer schools in college, because you already built a community in one place. Just going to university is still difficult for a lot of students, but especially for transfer students, because they don’t experience a lot of the things all first-year students experience. I think that St. Thomas did a phenomenal job really promoting events for transfer students.
It was a little bit difficult for me at the beginning, especially being from so far away.
But I was incredibly grateful, for I had joined Saint Paul’s Outreach (SPO) right at the beginning when I transferred, and that helped me find a group of people who welcomed me. That then opened the doors for me to explore and feel more confident to look at other clubs and other organizations on campus and events.
What does leadership mean to you?
I think leadership is putting the person in front of you as the highest priority, and serving them and honoring them. With a lot of the leaders I’ve met, it’s very easy to want to serve the people you know and those that you’re comfortable around, but true leaders, I think, take the initiative to serve anyone whom they cross paths with in small ways and in big ways.
Looking at the Tommie Award profiles, I was very impressed by many of the things other peers had accomplished in their time.
What advice would you give to new students looking to make an impact at the university?
Start small, like in the classroom with the people you see in your dorm and the people you see regularly. Leadership is a ripple effect. Go and impact someone else, and then it just leads to people being impacted by the ways you are serving and helping those around you.
SPO was the ripple effect for me being impacted by the people in that community. The missionaries there just moved me to want to go out on campus and get to know my peers, get to know my professors, my classmates, the people I was seeing every day, but also the people I was just casually seeing, like the people I would walk past and just smile at, or like baristas at The Loft or the people working at the library.
What have you learned from your research on the link between pornography and human trafficking in the U.S.?
I think one of the main points is that the link between the two is very high. The more we see pornography in our world, we recognize that there’s actually a higher number of people being trafficked and filmed for these videos to be put out.
And it was very overwhelming doing this research because it required a lot of reading, a lot of hearing the stories of men and women from various ages and demographics sharing the same horror, the same experiences. And it was very easy to see this, and just to be overwhelmed, and it naturally overwhelms anyone. It’s not something we talk about in society.
But these are people. They’re not just statistics. They’re not numbers. One of my biggest takeaways was that I often found myself saying, “Oh, it’s just another story. It’s just another case of just one of the 7.8 million people (involved in the industry).” But these are actual people.
I think that how we view hope out of such a despairing issue in society is really helpful for me, and to be able to share that with my class when I was presenting my paper. Because with a lot of problems in the world, it’s very easy to lose hope.
I’m really hopeful that there will be more research done on this field for years to come.
What reflections do you have on your time with Catholic Studies?
Catholic Studies changed my life when I came to St. Thomas. As Catholics, it’s very easy to kind of compartmentalize your faith and your life. I did that for many years, where I didn’t see my faith as something that could be lived out in the day to day, besides going to Mass and praying the rosary with my family.
My Catholic Studies coursework really integrated Catholic social teaching with the world.
My courses were just absolutely phenomenal. All the professors there truly care about each student who walks through their doors.
I think that there’s something very unique and special about Catholic Studies that they’re able to really holistically form students spiritually and academically to grow into whatever workforce it may be, and live out their Catholic faith within their lives.
What are you looking forward to the most regarding your upcoming spring semester Catholic Studies experience in Rome?
I’m really excited! I think the times I told people I’m going to Rome in the spring, they’re like, ‘The spring of your senior year, what? That’s so odd.’ But I think that is the life of a transfer student. I also just got to St. Thomas last year, and I’ve been tremendously impacted by it. Last spring, it just felt too rushed to go.
We have a lovely cohort of students going, and Dr. Michael Naughton (director for the Center for Catholic Studies) is going with us. He’s just absolutely phenomenal.
Everything will be new, and I appreciate it when I go into things without really knowing anything.
What are your career aspirations?
In the short term. I would love to go to graduate school. I’m looking at a few different universities for a master’s degree in communications with a concentration in nonprofit management. Before I transferred to St. Thomas, I took a year off from school to work with a nonprofit called NET Ministries. I was working with teens and high school students to help them encounter authentic friendship and the love of God. That changed my life completely.
What does a culture of encounter mean to you?
It really is seeing the person in front of you as someone important and needed in this world. It’s very easy on a college campus to just kind of ignore the people who are passing around you or in your classes – you could never see them again.
But a culture of encounter is being able to do that, being able to see them person in front of you as important.
I would get to know my professors better through their office hours; I would go quite frequently.
I didn’t really appreciate and value small talk until I did my year of service with NET Ministries and realized that was the only way I was going to be able to get to know people if I engaged in small talk first. I think being able to do that with different people impacted my life completely.
You play the cajón. Who are the go-to artists on your playlist?
The reason I learned to play the cajón is because I actually studied music education at A&M when I was there. I was very passionate about music because I started playing percussion in sixth grade.
Some of my top artists are: Michael Burritt, a professor at Eastman School of Music; Brian Zator, a professor who I had my first year at A&M; Sandi Rennick, a phenomenal percussionist; and Mark Ford, coordinator of percussion at The University of North Texas College of Music.
Last fall, I played with the St. Thomas band, which was really helpful for me.