College Success Stories 

Watch a video from Mayor Emanuel and read the education stories of Board Vice President Ruiz and Chief Education Officer Dr. Donoso

October 14, 2011


As part of the Chicago Champions College and Career Week, Chicago School Board Vice President Jesse Ruiz and Chief Education Officer Dr. Noemi Donoso shared their education stories with us.


Jesse Ruiz

Vice President, Chicago Board of Education

Partner, Drinkler Biddle &Reath (a law firm)

Commissioner, U.S. Department of Education Equity and Excellence Commission



Marist High School (a Catholic high school in Chicago)
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
University of Chicago Law School


When you were in elementary or high school, how did you prepare for college?

My most important lesson in high school was that preparation is critical. Once in high school, I had to study so much more than I did in elementary school. I would get up early in the morning and study. One Sunday, I spent six hours studying for a biology test, and this was after I had already studied during the week. It paid off though because I got an A on the test. High school helped me understand the importance of time management and having a strong work ethic.

I always knew I was going to go to college. My parents always stressed the importance of education. In 4th grade, I remember wanting to be an astronaut and that later changed to wanting to become an electrical engineer.


In preparing for, or once, at college, what was your biggest struggle, and how did you overcome it?

I was admitted into U of I's College of Engineering, which at the time was ranked 4th in the country. In high school, I got all A's and B's. However, once I got down to U of I, I was very distracted by everything that was on campus. I joined a fraternity, went to football games and really enjoyed being in college. However, I was not studying as much as I should have been, and I was a little intimidated by my classmates – many of whom were valedictorians. I ended up flunking out of U of I my first year. I forgot about the lesson I learned in high school: focus and work hard.


However, I learned another important lesson: never fail to take advantage of an opportunity that comes your way. This is something I still practice today. I lost a great opportunity to become an engineer. I also learned that you should always seek out help. I should have taken advantage of the counselors and tutoring that was available at school.


Where did you attend college, and why did you choose that college?

After my first year at U of I, I regrouped and attended a community college for a year. I was then readmitted to U of I, but to the college of Liberal Arts & Sciences – not the College of Engineering. I had originally chosen U of I because it is a great engineering school and it was less expensive since it was in state.


Who influenced your decision to go to college and/or your decision to go into a certain career?

My parents influenced my decision to go to college. Even though neither of them went to college, they stressed the importance of education, and in fact, immigrated here from Mexico in order to provide me with better opportunities.


When I returned to U of I, I started studying economics and really enjoyed it. I didn't really think about what type of career it would lead to, but I stuck with it because I really enjoyed learning about economics and thinking about how to apply it.


My parents never pushed me towards a certain career. They wanted me to find something that would provide fulfillment that would challenge me, and in the end, make me happy. I found that in becoming a corporate & securities lawyer. I'm able to work with large corporations, and also provide my services pro-bono to individuals and nonprofit organizations who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. I also have the flexibility to work with many civic and charitable organizations. This career has allowed me to give back and presents new challenges everyday, so I'm never bored.


Are there any lessons from college that you continue to draw on today in your career?

I continue to practice the humbling lessons I learned my first year of college:


  1. Take advantage of everything that is presented to you
  2. Get involved in a variety of different things that interest you
  3. Constantly network
  4. Understand the importance of organizational skills and time management


Why do you think college and career are important?

The ultimate reason that college and career is important is that it provides you with the ability to make choices for yourself. It gives you more freedom in life to choose how you will earn a living and contribute to society. As a lawyer, I've had a lot of choices. I was able to choose what type of law I wanted to practice. If you choose to do something you enjoy, it won't feel like work. When I spend time with my sons reading and helping them with homework, I'm reminded how important education is and how it is one of the most wonderful gifts that I can ever give them.




Dr. Noemi Donoso

Chief Education Officer, Chicago Public Schools



Mount St. Mary's College
Rutgers University
University of Southern California


When you were in elementary or high school, how did you prepare for college?

I was the first in my family to go straight to college after high school, so I had very little guidance at home. My mom made it clear I had to go to college but the rest was up to me. I definitely studied hard and was ranked in the top 5% of my class. However I was a terrible test taker and did not do well on the SAT (like the ACT). I spent the entire summer before senior year in test prep to get a better SAT score so I could qualify for a scholarship, since we could not afford college tuition. I then applied to local colleges I knew about: Mount St. Mary's College and UCLA. I also applied to UC Berkeley because it seemed like such a hip, progressive college.


In preparing for, or once, at college, what was your biggest struggle, and how did you overcome it?

One of the first challenges I faced happened in the first month of college when I received a C, maybe C- for the first paper I submitted in English 101. I was devastated. I was an English major and I had NEVER received anything less than a B. It was a rude awakening, I needed to learn how to write! I quickly befriended a senior who I knew was very smart. She taught me how to write at a college level and was my writing tutor the rest of that semester. I don't know what I would have done without her.


Honestly, I loved college! I enjoyed the challenge and the freedom. I worked full time throughout college and had an active social life. It was a vibrant time in my life.


Where did you attend college, and why did you choose that college?

I went to Mount St. Mary's College, a small all-women liberal arts college, not too far from home. I toured UCLA and UC Berkeley and felt lost. I liked the personal attention at Mount St. Mary's and quickly became impressed with a professor of Leadership Studies who became one of my most influential mentors. In addition, Mount St. Mary's offered me a full scholarship which made it very difficult to consider the other two options.


Who influenced your decision to go to college and/or your decision to go into a certain career?

Even though we didn't have much money growing up, my parents always underscored education as our number one responsibility, and they made many sacrifices to ensure we valued learning. Therefore, I didn't think I had any other choice, it was assumed I was going to go to college.


As for teaching, that came later. First, I thought I wanted to become a lawyer, then I thought I wanted to become a policy maker so that I could write laws that protected civil rights and women's rights. One summer, after the civil unrest in Los Angeles, I ran a summer program designed to give middle school students an outlet to express their anger, frustration, and hope coming out of a few very hostile and destructive months in South Los Angeles. Spending eight weeks with these insightful and honest students, convinced me that teaching was a more powerful way for me to impact issues of social justice. I became more determined than ever to help urban youth break through stereo-types and defy statistics by gaining admission to competitive universities throughout the country.


Are there any lessons from college that you continue to draw on today in your career as a Chief Education Officer?

Absolutely! I have actually spent approximately 10 plus years in college: four years for a BA, one year in a Master's program and five plus years (part-time) completing my Ph.D. Everything I learned, I learned in college: time management, organization, writing, public speaking, research, analysis and critical thinking, resilience, problem-solving, team work, I can go on and on.


Probably the most valuable lesson I learned is that there are many ways to solve a problem and that with the right information, tools and support I can develop a plan to effectively address any challenge.


Why do you think college and career are important?

Since a young age I was driven to find ways to eliminate barriers to college. I saw a college education as a tool that put me on equal footing with others, even though I was born speaking Spanish and grew up poor. College gave me access to a life and a future my parents had not experienced. They wanted this for me and I wanted to make them proud. Ultimately I have the benefit of having a career that is much more about a life calling than a job. I get the gift of every day making college a reality for thousands of youth who are also first in their family to go to college!


Also check out CPS alumna Arlinda Fair's video Opens in a new window icon. where she talks about the African-American history teacher who inspired her to pursue her dreams, the challenges she overcame to attend Jackson State University, and her advice for current CPS students. And also CPS alumnus Cortez Hicks talks about his path Opens in a new window icon. to Denison University and the people and programs that helped him get there, from the Kenwood Academy Brotherhood mentoring program to the Posse Scholarship. And finally, read Shonda Huery's, the Chief of Schools-Fulton Elementary Network, education story PDF icon.. And remember, send us your pictures of students and teachers sporting college gear to, and we'll share them on the District's Facebook page.



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