Jason Chavez-Cruz is a pioneer. Five years ago, when he was deciding which college to attend — he’d been accepted at 13 — the Minneapolis native and first-generation American made what felt like a risky decision: He decided to leave the known comforts of his life in the Twin Cities and head north to Duluth to study at the College of St. Scholastica.
For many Minnesota kids, a family trip to Duluth is an annual tradition, but Chavez-Cruz’s family had never ventured that far north. And while he wanted the adventure of attending a college that was farther than a city bus ride from home, Chavez-Cruz had a few reservations about spending the next four years in Greater Minnesota.
“My family is from Mexico,” he explained. “We don’t look like most people who live in Duluth. Part of me was scared to go up there because of the stories other people had told me about the place. They’d said, ‘You won’t talk like everyone else. You won’t like the food. The people there will be racist.’ So all of that was in the back of my head.”
A number of colleges, including St. Scholastica, had offered Chavez-Cruz a full ride, but what sealed the deal for him was the intent behind Scholastica’s scholarship.
Named for Sister Timothy Kirby, a 1939 graduate of the college, a nun and a former dean of students whose commitment to peace and justice was personified by her decades of service as a volunteer spiritual mentor at Duluth’s Federal Prison Camp, the Sister Timothy Kirby Social Justice Scholarship honors students who show a commitment to the advancement of racial and social justice.
Chris Davila, St. Scholastica diversity and inclusion director, said that Chavez-Cruz was offered the scholarship in recognition of the activism he’d demonstrated while a student at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a private Catholic school in Minneapolis that focuses on immigrant families.
“What we look for in Sister Timothy scholarship recipients is a commitment to activism and a self-awareness of their own identity,” Davila said. “We look to what kind of action they’ve done. Just talking about diversity is not good enough. We want to recognize students who have participated in walkouts and other social justice activities. We want students who will continue that activism when they come to campus.”
The intent of the scholarship appealed to Chavez-Cruz.
“I looked at the scholarships I’d been offered and started breaking them down based on what they meant,” he said. “I’ve always leaned toward social justice, so I was happy that the Sister Timothy scholarship was based on that.”
It sent a good message, Chavez-Cruz said: “I figured the scholarship meant that this school cares about the issues.” So, he took a deep breath and made the decision to go to Duluth. He tried to set his concerns aside: “I didn’t look back. I told myself, ‘This is where I’m going to college.”
On his own
Though he’d been warned, Chavez-Cruz said he was still surprised by just how different things felt once he got he got to Duluth and took a good look around campus.
The surprise didn’t kick in right away: Chavez-Cruz headed to campus early for the college’s multicultural leadership orientation. The orientation crowd was a smaller group made up of students of color and recent immigrants, so he didn’t notice the difference at first.
“The orientation was very social-justice oriented with a good mix of people,” Chavez-Cruz said. “But once that ended and everyone else arrived on campus it was like, ‘Blech.’ I was noticeably different. I met this one Latina girl during orientation and we became friends, but that was it. There was no one else like me.”
Historically, St. Scholastica’s student body has been largely made up of students of European and Scandinavian descent, Davila said. That is changing — the incoming class of 2019 is projected to be the most diverse ever, with 19 percent students of color — but until Chavez-Cruz arrived, the school’s Latino student population was small.
“Jason represents a big change in our campus,” Davila said.
The school, founded in 1912 by a group of Benedictine Sisters as an all-women’s private college and high school, was focused on training graduates for careers in nursing and teaching. St. Scholastica began admitting men in 1969, but it has retained its historic emphasis on educating marginalized groups, said Ellen Johnson, VP for enrollment management.
“Starting as a women’s college, there was always that ethic of serving people for whom education isn’t always the first option,” she said. “We are still doing that today by serving underrepresented students.”
Even with all the support in the world, trailblazing can take a toll. Being one of only a very small number of Latino students felt disorienting for Chavez-Cruz, who’d grown up surrounded by a big extended family of siblings and cousins. He missed the easy feeling of being around people who understood him and supported his interests. He liked being able to speak Spanish without attracting unwanted attention.
“It wasn’t a good situation,” Chavez-Cruz admitted. “I was trying to get comfortable but it felt hard.”
Now one year out of college and working as a committee legislative aide to state Reps. Carlos Mariani and Mohamud Noor and for the public safety and criminal justice reform division, Chavez-Cruz can see that some of the discomfort he felt during his first years in Duluth were partially self-inflicted.
Though he’d done well in high school and was now going to a good college, Chavez-Cruz said he always had the feeling that at some point he would be revealed as a failure.
“I’m a first-generation college student,” he explained. “My family in Mexico had very low education. I didn’t learn English until I was a little older so I started school a little behind everyone else. I always set low bars for myself.”
Setting low bars meant that Chavez-Cruz never really thought that he’d be able to make it through four years of college. “I told myself, ‘I’m probably not going to graduate, but whatever,’” he said. “It took until the summer of my sophomore year for me to realize that I really could finish.”
By the end of his rocky freshman year, things felt so rough that Chavez-Cruz seriously considered transferring out of school and leaving Duluth. But then he got some good news.
“I found out that my brother and two of my cousins” — Bryan Chavez-Cruz, Josue Chino-Cruz and Allen Cruz — “were coming to St. Scholastica the next year,” he said. “I knew then that I was going to stay in Duluth.”
As the oldest kid in his close-knit group of siblings and cousins, Chavez-Cruz knew that he had a responsibility to be a good role model. “I knew that if I left Duluth it would give them the message that it was OK for them to leave,” he said. “I didn’t want that.”
With that goal in mind, Chavez-Cruz decided to dive into campus life.
“Those guys are the reason I stayed and did better,” he said. “I couldn’t let them see someone they look up to do bad or leave school.”
One way to dive into campus life was to get involved in student government. Starting in his junior year, Chavez-Cruz ran for a position on the college’s Student Senate, taking an activist stance in an organization that had formerly focused on less political issues.
One of Chavez-Cruz’s early proposals focused on supporting undocumented students by making the college a sanctuary school.
“When I made the proposal with the support of the Latino Student Union, people on the Senate shut it down,” he said. “They told me, ‘Maybe next time.’ I was very upset. The Senate was very white. They didn’t understand.”
Chavez-Cruz said that his first response to his proposal’s rejection was to consider quitting the Student Senate, but then he had another idea: “I decided to channel my anger and run for student body president.”
After he became student body president, Chavez-Cruz turned his attention to recruiting other first-generation students and students of color to serve on the Student Senate. “I took it upon myself to spread the word about this opportunity,” he said. Before, applications for the positions had been available only in the Student Senate office. Now, Chavez-Cruz made sure that they were also available in the Center for Just Living, the Office of International Programs and the Intercultural Center, three places on campus that are frequented by his target audience.
The strategy worked, Chavez-Cruz said. A more diverse slate of candidates ran for the open seats, and: “Over 60 percent of the Student Senate was made up of people of color.”
With the change in representation came a new focus for the Student Senate. Before, Chavez-Cruz said, the group “didn’t really take itself seriously. Now, students are focused on the essential nature of their role. Senate started changing things. The administration started taking us seriously. We actually got things done.”
Davila said that Chavez-Cruz’s focus on activism both on campus and in the city of Duluth inspired a new generation of St. Scholastica students to claim leadership roles and become more connected to the college. He sees a renewed sense of energy on campus that he hopes will continue long after the Cruz family is gone.
“Jason thought about transferring,” Davila said, “but instead he chose to be part of the solution, which he really was. He could have gone back to the Cities. Instead he chose to stick it out here and to be part of the activism and leadership. He navigated the system to benefit himself and other people like him. In the end, everyone benefited.”
Follow the leader
The Cruz family migration to St. Scholastica didn’t end with Bryan, Josue and Allen. In the next two years, two more cousins (Lidia Angeles-Cruz and Chantell Armijo-Cruz) followed, bringing the total number of Cruz family members in Duluth to six.
It felt great for Chavez-Cruz to once again be surrounded by family. And it made the transition easier for younger family members.
Armijo-Cruz, the youngest family member to enroll at St. Scholastica, said that her oldest cousin’s example made the idea of going away for college seem like a goal that she could achieve.
“Jason set the example for us,” Armijo-Cruz said. “The first time I set foot in Duluth was in 2014 when we dropped Jason off for school at Scholastica.”
After that, Armijo-Cruz got to know the college when she made the trip north to visit her cousins.
“I was part of events for the Latino Student Union or the International Club,” she explained. “I did a traditional folk dance. I went and we did a fashion show. I brought my Quinceañera dress and modeled it.”
By the time she was ready to apply for college, St. Scholastica was the obvious choice, Armijo-Cruz said.
“I got to know so many people there while I was still in high school. They were so friendly and welcoming. There were people in Duluth who knew all about me. It was a good feeling.”
And when she learned that she had been awarded a Sister Timothy Kirby scholarship, she was sold.
“My cousins knew that I got the scholarship before I did,” Armijo-Cruz said. “They told my parents. Then, at Christmas, they gave me a box. Inside was a paper that said, ‘Congratulations.’ I asked, ‘Congratulations for what?’ They told me I got the scholarship. In that moment I knew I was going to Scholastica.”
The Cruz family’s “all-in” approach to college isn’t actually all that unusual, Davila said.
“When we look at recruiting students of color and recent immigrants we understand that we have to recruit the whole family. It’s part of the culture. We see Latino students recruiting their family members to come. Same with Hmong students. We have a Vietnamese immigrant family that has all four siblings enrolled at Scholastica at once.” It’s a way of making a place feel more like home, he explained.
When the Cruz family committed to St. Scholastica, word spread around their high school.
“After my year, a whole bunch of people from Cristo Rey went to Scholastica,” Chavez-Cruz said. “Before me, a lot of Cristo Rey grads went to St. Mary’s University, but after me, Scholastica became the school to go to.”
Johnson confirmed this statement: “Last year we had 13 students enroll from Cristo Rey,” she said. “It’s become a great pipeline school for us.”
In recognition of this new partnership, St. Scholastica hired a bilingual admissions counselor who can speak Spanish with parents in order to better explain the school’s application process.
“She works with Cristo Rey,” Johnson said. “We want to make sure that we have that ability to communicate with parents and translate some of the materials. We want to do what it takes to help families feel comfortable with sending their children here.”
Even with five family members on campus, moving to Duluth still felt like “a big culture shock,” Armijo-Cruz said. “I was missing the food from home. It was just so different. I came from a high school that was predominantly Latino students and other students of color. Then I went to Scholastica and I’m usually the only Latino student in the classroom.”
At first, that feeling of difference was always there, she said. It would pop up at the most unexpected times, like during her first-year English comp class: “We made a family tree. Other students were saying things like, ‘My great-great grandmother migrated here in 1854,’ and I was saying, ‘My mom came here in 1980.’ I was different, and I didn’t know how to handle it at first. I wasn’t used to being the only student of color in the classroom.”
But Armijo-Cruz stuck it out, and she’s made herself comfortable at college. In her freshman year, she followed her cousin’s lead and ran for Student Senate. As a sophomore she took a new Senate position called vice president of diversity and inclusion, and when she returns to school in the fall she will student body vice president. Her influence extends beyond student government: When the college hired a new president this year, Armijo-Cruz served as a student representative on the search committee.
These days, she says she can’t imagine going to school anywhere else.
“Scholastica has made a home for me,” Armijo-Cruz said. “That feeling comes from faculty, staff and students. The whole community here lives up to their values of hospitality, community and respect. I love it here.”
Could Armijo-Cruz imagine that love of her college extending to a life in northern Minnesota after graduation? As a social work and psychology major, could she imagine a post-college career at a Duluth hospital or social service agency?
“I’ve thought about it,” she said. “I don’t have an answer yet. I’m never going to say, ‘I’m never going to live in Duluth.’ I don’t know what my future holds.” At the beginning, she never would have imagined even giving such an idea a second thought. But now that she’s made this part of the state her home for the last two years, things look different.
“I’d never think I’d say it,” Armijo-Cruz laughed, “but if the opportunity arose, I’d definitely consider it.”