By their own admission, 18-year-old Marina Ruiz felt pretty “lost” during freshman and junior years.
“I didn’t really have an idea of who I was as a person,” Ruiz said. “I wasn’t really confident as a student. I kind of sold myself short.”
But now, as the Scotts Valley High School senior prepares to graduate, Ruiz has been honored with the Exchange Club of Scotts Valley’s ACE Award for turning things around.
When the formerly-struggling pupil looks back on those first few semesters on campus, that image is marred by a report card filled with C’s and D’s.
“I also tended to surround myself with people who brought out the worst of me,” they said. “Before Covid, I really struggled with seeing a future for myself.”
Pandemic-era online schooling meant Ruiz was more isolated, but it also kept them separated from the peers they had a habit of getting into trouble with.
“I saw how being away from those people kind of changed me as a person,” Ruiz said. “I guess you could say I grew a little bit in myself, maturity-wise.”
When school moved back in-person, things didn’t instantly resolve, however.
“I had some social anxiety,” Ruiz said, adding they tended to keep to themselves. “I had a hard time being in the classroom.”
‘Marina was chosen for the ACE Award because of the strength and courage they have shown throughout high school’—Christie Danner school guidance counselor
But Ruiz buckled down and started improving academically.
And this time, when behavioral challenges arose, they began looking for a healthier way out.
Ruiz credits Christie Danner, a guidance counselor, for facilitating their transformation.
Where others weren’t so good at empathizing, Ms. Danner took the time to really listen and connect.
“She sat down with me and kind of broke through a little bit,” Ruiz said. “She always had advice and walked me through everything.”
Ms. Danner was there for Ruiz, too, when calamity struck on the ballfield.
Ruiz played softball throughout high school, but during a game in the Lake Tahoe area, things came to a sudden halt—literally.
“I went to change direction, but my cleat had gotten stuck in the mud,” they said. “My knee just completely tore out of place.”
Initially, doctors didn’t realize the extent of the damage—ACL, ALL and meniscus injuries—further exacerbating things.
“Everything was over,” Ruiz said. “Doing sports is kind of my coping mechanism for my mental health disabilities. I got super depressed and was falling behind in schooling.”
Ruiz was planning to go into firefighting. But now, due to the injury, that had to change.
Thankfully, Ms. Danner was able to outline appealing educational options with Ruiz and their mom.
“I was not planning on going to college—I didn’t think I was capable,” Ruiz said, adding that other SVHS staff were helpful, too. “I had to figure out what my path was going to be.”
Ruiz decided to apply to four different colleges and was accepted by three of them. Their choice: studying psychology at San Marcos State University.
The ACE Award wasn’t expected, and is a reflection that Ruiz now has all straight A’s (except for one B)—and an upbeat outlook.
Victor Alejandro, president of the Exchange Club of Scotts Valley, says Ruiz is the exact kind of person they want to highlight through the award.
“We want to be supporting our youth,” he said, noting it also comes with a $500 gift. “We want to make sure the community’s as strong as possible.”
Recognizing people like Ruiz, who have made such strides both in the classroom and in their personal life, is a way to remind other students of what’s possible, according to Alejandro.
“I love hearing your story Marina,” he said. “You did the work. You deserve the award.”
Ms. Danner called Ruiz a “true leader” and says she’s quite proud to see the progress the “compassionate, kind, and giving” student has shown in recent years.
“Marina was chosen for the ACE award because of the strength and courage they have shown throughout high school,” she said. “Marina is a role model to younger peers and goes out of their way to reach out to students who are struggling with life challenges.”