Once Homeless, Ph.D. Student Strives to Open Boarding School for Disadvantaged Youth

By Tom McLaughlin

A stable, secure home environment, explains Alex Cruz, can make all the difference in the world to a child’s education.

“Kids shouldn’t have to worry about financial things, or whether they have a roof over their heads,” says the Ph.D. candidate in public affairs at Rutgers University–Camden.

Putting words into action, Cruz is utilizing the multidisciplinary approach of the Rutgers–Camden doctoral program to learn every aspect of fulfilling her career goal of opening and operating a boarding school for economically disadvantaged youth.

It’s a mission near and dear to the Philadelphia resident’s heart. For it wasn’t so long ago when Cruz was walking in the same shoes as the students she is trying to help.

As Cruz recalls, when she was a child, her mother – a single mom, Margarita Cruz– struggled to make ends meet, working several jobs in order to support her and her two younger sisters, Andi Cruz and Ayanah Beattie. They were homeless, but stayed with aunts and uncles for brief respites in the Lancaster area before being asked to move on again. Often there wasn’t enough room for all of them to stay together, so, being the oldest, Cruz was routinely separated from her mother and sisters.

The family then lived for a short period in a trailer park before Alex and Andi were given the opportunity of a lifetime to attend the Milton Hershey School, a nonprofit boarding school for economically disadvantaged youth founded by the famed candy maker in Hershey, Pa.

The date?

“It was August 12, 2000,” says Cruz without hesitation. “It’s one of the few dates that all Milton Hershey students remember, and it’s etched in my mind as the day that changed my life forever.”

After living for three months in a homeless shelter while Cruz and her sister’s campus home was being built – part of an expansion at the school – she enrolled as an 11-year-old sixth grader. Eight-year-old Andi was entering the third grade.

From the beginning, says Cruz, she knew that the school was different than any environment she had ever experienced. Accustomed to adults coming and going in her life, she admittedly had adopted a tough-to-crack exterior, not allowing herself to get close to any elders.

“But my teachers proved me wrong,” says the Philadelphia resident.

At the encouragement of her drama teacher, Cruz tapped into a love of visual and performing arts as an outlet from daily stresses, including the devastating loss of her grandmother, “the matriarch of the family.”

Cruz also received much-needed guidance and emotional support from her “house parents” – adults who functioned as her surrogate parents on campus.

“They went way beyond their job descriptions. My house parents were there for everything in my life – when I hit puberty, high-school relationships, breakups, you name it,” recalls Cruz. “They filled a void that was so crucial to our development.”

Moreover, says Cruz, her house parents helped to redefine her notions of success and what she wanted out of life. For the first time, she dreamt of going to college; it had never been a goal before, simply because she had never known anyone who had.

“Up until that time, my idea of success was being able to live in an apartment without the fear of getting kicked out,” she says. “My house mom encouraged me to focus on things like that. She changed my world.”

Cruz would go on to attend Temple University, graduating with bachelor’s degrees in theater and Latin American studies in 2011. During that time, she studied abroad in Buenos Aires, where it further helped to shape her long-term career goals.

“Initially, I had thought about moving out of the country, but after seeing poverty abroad, it really clicked that my duty was to focus on poverty at home in the U.S.,” she says.

Upon graduating, Cruz taught drama and service learning at the Boys and Girls Club in Lancaster, Pa.; reading and math at Huntington Learning Center in Harrisburg, Pa.; and Spanish at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Lancaster.

Through her work, Cruz noticed that students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds appeared to suffer academically and socially as compared with their peers from more well-to-do backgrounds.

Just as importantly, she says, in her poorer students, she saw herself.

“I knew that I would be no different than them had it not been for the education that I received,” she says. “I thought, ‘Why don’t I create more schools that can have a similar influence on other economically disadvantaged kids?’”

Inspired by her experiences, Cruz returned to Temple University and graduated with a master of education degree in urban education in May 2014.

She then arrived at Rutgers–Camden, where her doctoral research interests include poverty, homelessness, multicultural education, residential education, risk and resiliency in urban youth, and foster youth. She believes that the Ph.D. program’s comprehensive curriculum, such as the law and business courses that she has taken, are going to give her a decided edge when she opens her school.

“For instance, educators typically don’t know the laws behind various policies, but I wanted to learn them and what they cover,” she says. “As an administrator, I will be five steps ahead.”

While pursuing her degree, Cruz has served as a graduate assistant to Brandi Blessett, an assistant professor of public policy and administration at Rutgers–Camden. She primarily conducts evaluations of the Renew Camden program, which helps former incarcerated persons reintegrate back into society, based at the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey in Camden.

She also works in the alumni department, organizing events and managing the database, at Girard College, a boarding school for economically disadvantaged students in Philadelphia.

All the while, Cruz hasn’t forgotten the positive influence that adults can have on the lives and futures of young children. Her most treasured mission is to be a role model to her nine-year-old nephew, Giani, who stays with her once a month.

“I want to make sure that he has someone to look up to, someone he can mirror,” she says. “We’ve already talked about college. I feel like I owe it to him to be that kind of person that I had at Milton Hersey.”

Posted in: Student Achievement

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