Ivan Ruiz once skimmed through a college-level textbook on the United States government because ... he had nothing else to do.
He was in fifth grade.
“It's a situation where I always break it out to show the students the importance of highlighting and finding important information, and there's always that one student that says, 'Hey, can I read that?'" said Darin Wetzel, Ruiz's fifth-grade teacher at Westside Elementary School.
"Ivan was one of those kids."
Ruiz's early passion for education and drive for knowledge would eventually get him to big places: he'll attend Princeton University — the prestigious New Jersey Ivy League school with a 7-percent acceptance rate — this fall on a full-tuition scholarship.
He is the first in his family to attend college.
“I’m just excited for new experiences,” said Ruiz, a senior at Skyline High School. “I’ve paid my dues here, and it’s funny: my mom always says the phrase, ‘You’re trying to fly but you don’t have your wings yet.’ I've always wanted to get to the next thing.”
He’s declared his major as biology, eventually hoping to go into orthopedic surgery.
“I always say I can live anywhere just as long as I have the resources to be successful,” Ruiz said. “This has always been a goal, and I’ve finally reached it and I gotta go for it, so that overshadows any sort of fear or anxiety."
Ruiz has been given resources to help him achieve his goal — but that wasn't always the case.
Originally from Mihoacán, Mexico, his family legally migrated to the United States in 2001, first moving to Texas and then to Rupert when he was 2 years old. His family finally settled in Idaho Falls a few months later.
His father works in agriculture and his mother works in retail, and he is the oldest of three children.
Ruiz said he didn’t speak English when he started kindergarten. He’s now bilingual — articulating openly and confidently about Idaho’s education system and his early life struggles (not knowing English the first few months of public education; being overweight during those awkward middle school years) Monday afternoon in a classroom at Skyline.
He’s taking four Advanced Placement classes (environmental science, AP government, AP calculus BC and AP literature) this year. While playing football for the Grizzlies, he’s managed at a local Jack in the Box fast food chain.
He credits his parents' laid-back attitude in helping him create independence, drive and a moral compass.
“They weren’t very controlling,” Ruiz said of his parents and upbringing. “They let me create my own ideas and grow as the person I wanted to be and I credit that a lot to my successes today. Just having that freelance. … I would say from a very young age my parents instilled a sense of morality and expectations that have carried with me and they believed that would suffice. Which it did. It helped me get to the person I am today.”
Ruiz also is an Idaho State University TRIO Educational Talent Search student. TRIO is a federally funded umbrella program that provides seven independent programs to help first-generation, limited-income students reach higher education, according to its website.
He joined Educational Talent Search in the fall of 2016 and was thinking about attending Stanford University until TRIO's Anjel Zamora and Sheldon Eakins, currently the Director of Special Education at Shoshone-Bannock School District, pushed him to think more broadly about applying to East Coast Ivy's such as Princeton and Harvard.
Zamora and Eakins encouraged Ruiz to apply to Princeton following a trip to Washington, D.C., his junior year.
"I told him, 'Let the school deny you, don’t deny yourself,'" Zamora said in a phone interview.
"I think he finds inspiration from the environment in which he comes from. He sees the alternative of what his world can, or could, be without education. I'm not saying that's bad, but it's just different than what he may want."
Monday at Skyline, Ruiz thanked his family, friends, teachers and coaches for creating a balanced school-work-sports schedule.
While the pacing of school has rapidly increased the closer he gets to attending Princeton in September, Ruiz said he was thankful for those who have helped him along the way.
“I feel like you’re given a natural ability, to a point,” Ruiz said. “But from there, it’s the resources that are available, the potential you have and the work ethic you put in. I don’t feel like I was necessarily wired to be this way. I feel like I was given the right chemistry and elements to achieve this, but I definitely had to work to get here.”
While there are systems and resources at play that helped Ruiz during his early education days — he said he recognizes how standardized education could turn away some students and unfairly produce “winners” and “losers” — he has worked hard to get out of eastern Idaho.
Statistically, Idaho generally struggles to get students to, and through, college (the state's post-secondary completion rate was just 42 percent in 2015). Only three students from Idaho are in Princeton's Class of 2022, according to the University's admission statistics.
Ruiz, though, said he doesn’t have much guilt moving 2,000-plus miles away.
"I felt like I got here and education was all I had because my parents had immigrated here," he said. "There was nothing for them here and they had to build everything from the ground up.”
As he walked Skyline’s hallways Monday, classmates and teachers greeted Ruiz, congratulating him, dapping him up.
“You’re going to do awesome things,” Skyline booster Terry Layland told Ruiz as he walked to and from the main office.
He smiled and thanked Layland.
“I would say Ivan really is a fighter,” current TRIO advisor Martha Ramirez said. “Regarding his circumstances and his background, to eventually learn a new language and play sports and be engaged with the community with a smile on his face is really amazing to see.”
Ruiz’s "wings" are beginning to show.