Biomedical sciences graduate driven by resilience, called to help others

Contact: Erin Flynn
Jovanny Ruiz-Alavez poses for a photo in his graduation cap and gown.

Jovanny Ruiz-Alavez graduates Saturday, May 1, with a bachelor's degree in biomedical sciences.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Jovanny Ruiz-Alavez is a natural caregiver. It's a quality he leaned into as a teenager when his mother was diagnosed with cancer.

"I would always go with her everywhere, so when she did get sick and eventually went to hospice care, I would be with her every night," he remembers. "I would be with her every night and stay with her, wake up early to be with her and then go to school."

After her untimely death, Ruiz-Alavez—a high school student at the time—stepped up to help provide for his family.

"It's really hard to focus on your grades when you're thinking about how your dad's doing, how your siblings are doing and also thinking about our income," says Ruiz-Alavez, who grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Ruiz-Alavez became a certified phlebotomist to get more practical experience in the health care field.

Despite the challenges, he excelled in the classroom, with a knack for math and aspirations of a career in engineering. When it came time to think about college, however, the possibility of paying for a four-year college seemed out of reach. Then fate intervened.

"For some reason, something told me to go to the Western Michigan University webpage and look at scholarships there. That's where I found the Foundation Scholarship—it was only about a year old—and I thought, 'It can't hurt to apply.'"

Launched in 2015, the Foundation Scholars Program supports academically excellent students who have demonstrated resilience despite financial and other hardships with a four-year, $64,000 scholarship. Ruiz-Alavez was among the nine students to earn the scholarship in 2017.

"It really changed the route I was going in terms of my academic life and my personal life as well," Ruiz-Alavez says. "It's more than a scholarship; it's a family—we (Foundation Scholars) automatically established a connection once we first met each other. It helped me a lot, because as an underrepresented individual and a first-generation college was an environment I hadn't been exposed to. 

"The Foundation Scholars family really welcomed me into this environment because we're all in the same boat. It helped to also motivate me to do better in school, be involved in extracurricular activities and expand outside my comfort zone and grow as a person," he says.

His vision for the future also transformed at Western, from his high school engineering aspirations to medicine and potentially becoming a physician assistant (PA).

"There's been a lot of sickness in my family, unfortunately, and that has helped me to realize I want to be involved in health care," he says, reflecting on his experience with his mother. "I want to make a difference in people's lives and their health. I want to have an impact on the community where I was raised, underrepresented individuals specifically, because there are a lot of health care disparities among Hispanics and African Americans."

Through the guidance of another Foundation Scholar, Ruiz-Alavez chose to pursue a biomedical sciences degree at Western, something he believed would lay a solid foundation to prepare for graduate school. He also became a certified phlebotomist so that he could work and also get practical experience in the health care field.

Jovanny Ruiz-Alavez poses in his graduation regalia.

Ruiz-Alavez plans to apply to PA school.

Now poised to graduate Saturday, May 1, with his bachelor's degree, he plans to spend another year gaining professional experience before applying to master's programs.

"I think that the curriculum and the financial aid aspect really helped me to get to this point, along with the professors and connections I've made," he says. "Graduating and aspiring to hopefully one day become a PA and have the privilege to serve other patients and treat their health needs, I think that's something my mom would definitely be proud of."

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