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Graduate of Sam Presti's leadership program provides optimism during coronavirus pandemic

U.S. Grant student Dylan Ruiz became the first senior to ever join the Forward Thinking Leadership Development Program. [DOUG HOKE/THE OKLAHOMAN]
U.S. Grant student Dylan Ruiz became the first senior to ever join the Forward Thinking Leadership Development Program. [DOUG HOKE/THE OKLAHOMAN]

Kandy Hunt knew she had to find a way to get high school senior Dylan Ruiz into the Forward Thinking Leadership Development Program.

The program had only accepted sophomores and juniors since Thunder general manager Sam Presti founded it in 2011. Hunt, a U.S. Grant High School assistant principal, had been involved from the beginning, so she knew that full well.

That’s why she sent in a video from former El Paso Rep. Beto O'Rourke’s visit to U.S. Grant this past fall. The video showed Ruiz delivering a touching story about his immigration to the United States. How he was born prematurely and given a 36 percent chance of survival. How his teenage parents made the difficult decision to send their 1-year-old son to California so he could have a shot at the American Dream.

“Being seen as a person should not be a privilege that only comes from a notarized document,” Ruiz said, standing in front of his classmates and the then-presidential candidate. “… I am more than just my immigration status. I am American.”

This year, Ruiz became the first senior to ever join the Forward Thinking Leadership Development Program. Over the course of nine years, 516 students from U.S. Grant, John Marshall, Centennial, and this year Star Spencer, have gone through the program. All were selected for their untapped leadership potential.

Last week, Ruiz made headlines when a letter he wrote to his classmates made its way through Facebook to The Oklahoman’s Jenni Carlson.

“Frankly,” Carlson wrote of Ruiz, “after reading his words, I have no doubt he was a leader in his class and in his school.”

By his senior year, Ruiz was on the cross country, track and wrestling teams. He was a member of the National Honor Society and president of OU Upward Bound. But Hunt said she thought the Forward Thinking program could “bring him to that next level." Early in the school year, she called Thunder community relations programs manager Debbie Williams.

“I don’t want to say I begged,” Hunt told The Oklahoman, “but … I said, ‘Debbie, you have to get this kid in there. ... Sam really needs to have this kid in front of him.’”

Before the new year, Ruiz was sitting in front of Presti in the U.S. Grant library, ready for the introductory meeting.

“I was actually astonished,” Ruiz said, “because I'm so used to having people tell me what to do, and then I execute it, or I go off with the idea. … But with Sam and everybody else in the program, they’d be like, ‘OK, this is what we're going to talk about. Let us explain, let us guide you, let us navigate you.' And I really appreciated that.”

Three lessons stuck with Ruiz the most. Humility: Those who are humble don’t brag about being humble. Resilience: A tree might bend in the wind, but its roots will keep it from falling. Optimism: It comes naturally to some, but you can also train yourself to be an optimist.

That last term was especially useful when the Oklahoma State Department of Education suspended all extracurricular activities for the remainder of the school year, in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Ruiz read the grumblings in his graduating class’s Facebook group. He debated whether he should speak up.

“I went with the, 'What if,’” Ruiz said. “What if they do listen to you? Something I could control was my voice, and my perspective, and the things I wanted to say out clearly.”

Ruiz posted a 750-word letter to his classmates on his Facebook page. He addressed their concerns and empathized with their frustrations. But then he transitioned into a rallying cry.

“My fellow classmates,” Ruiz wrote, “I hope you can realize that the moments in history that mark your graduation are not determined by a diploma, but by the name on the diploma. That you realize every high school event, pep rally, spirit week, performance, sport and even the classes would’ve been meaningless without you being there. Destruction brings devastation but it also breeds creation, this is our year to bring back the value of being a General.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, Ruiz’s message to his fellow U.S. Grant seniors had been shared 113 times on Facebook. It resonated with people even beyond the U.S. Grant community.

When OU Upward Bound program director Quentin Dixon saw the post on his Facebook feed, he wasn’t surprised, and he sent Ruiz a text message saying as much.

“I know this leader,” Dixon said later. “... Seeing him send this letter, for me, it was this leader arriving to where he’s always belonged.”

After graduation, whatever that may look like, Ruiz is headed to the University of Oklahoma. Back in August, when O’Rourke visited U.S. Grant, Ruiz said one of biggest fears was that his status as an undocumented immigrant might get in the way of his aspirations to attend college.

“He doesn't let fear stop him,” Hunt said. “He just has his bright light above him that always shines through.”

Maddie Lee

Maddie Lee followed an NBA team from Seattle to Oklahoma City, she just took a 10-year detour in between. Lee joined the Oklahoman in October 2018 as a Thunder beat writer, fresh off a stint in Oxford, Miss., where she covered Ole Miss for the... Read more ›