Meet Richard Ruiz, the 2015 GW Commencement Student Speaker

U.S. Marine captain and graduate student: “Hopefully I can inspire someone.”

Vice President of GW External Relations Lorraine Voles congratulated U.S. Marine captain and graduate student Richard Ruiz on his win Friday afternoon. Mr. Ruiz bested nine competitors to earn the role of GW Commencement student speaker.
April 13, 2015

By Brittney Dunkins

When George Washington University graduate student and U.S. Marine Capt. Richard Ruiz posted a video on Facebook of a speech he wrote for his “Professional Communication” course, he never imagined it would receive more than 6,000 views.

According to Capt. Ruiz, the overwhelming response sparked an epiphany.

“I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I have a talent for this, maybe I could inspire someone with my story,’” said Capt. Ruiz, who will graduate in May with a master’s degree in leadership and education development from the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.

Capt. Ruiz’s instincts were proven right Friday afternoon at Alumni House when he was named the 2015 GW Commencement student speaker by a panel of faculty, staff and student judges.

“It’s exciting, it really is,” Capt. Ruiz said, smiling. “My family will be in the audience, and I am just very honored to have this opportunity.”

GW Commencement student speaker finalists Lisa Lindhorst, Omeed Firouzi, Musadiq Bidar, Stephen Nelson, Tim Rabolt, Michael BourieMohamed Sidibay, Amanda Parker and Alexa Dectis (l-r), with winner Capt. Ruiz and Ms. Voles (center). 

Capt. Ruiz bested nine other graduate and undergraduate student finalists to earn the coveted role of student speaker at GW’s 2015 Commencement. He will share his story of how, as a teenage father and husband, he persevered to become a decorated Marine Corps officer and college graduate with an advanced degree.

GW Commencement is May 17 on the National Mall. 

The finalists included undergraduates Musadiq Bidar, Michael Bourie, Alexa Dectis, Omeed Firouzi, Stephen Nelson, Tim Rabolt and Mohamed Sidibay, law student Lisa Lindhorst and graduate student Amanda Parker. 

They were selected from 74 applicants—a record for the university.

Competition judge Nina Gilden Seavey, director of the Documentary Center at the School of Media and Public Affairs, said that choosing a winner among the finalists was difficult because of the depth and diversity of the students’ speeches.

Following the announcement, the commencement student speaker judges gave Capt. Ruiz a standing ovation. 

She said that despite stiff competition, Capt. Ruiz captivated the judges with his unique personal story.

“All of the students had such fascinating personal stories, and it was difficult to choose a student story that best represents the university, Ms. Seavey said.  

“You’re looking for someone who embodies what the student body is about but also sparks your imagination, and Richard did that through his speech—he elevated the room,” she said.

In an effort to capture the GW experience, students’ speeches ranged from memories of late-night studying in Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library to inspiration from famed alumni and university namesake George Washington and personal stories of overcoming adversity.

For Capt. Ruiz, the road to academic success began in Gilroy, Calif., where he worked diligently to overcome his circumstances.

As the son of immigrants from Mexico, Capt. Ruiz struggled to learn English and failed the first grade. During his senior year of high school, he became a husband and father and worked at night to provide for his family.

After enlisting in the Marine Corps in 1996, Capt. Ruiz was embedded with Afghan troops and decorated for heroism. He became the first person in his family to graduate from college in 2005, earning an undergraduate degree from Oregon State University.

He will serve as a company officer and adjunct professor of leadership at the United States Naval Academy following graduation.

Capt. Ruiz cites imagination and perseverance as the fuel for his success.

“For some of us, the journey has been four years, while others, let’s just say it’s been a long time coming,” Capt. Ruiz said in his speech. “I ask you to remember your family, your friends, your professors, all that you have persevered through in order to make this moment a reality.”

Capt. Ruiz will join Apple CEO Tim Cook on the Commencement stage for the address.

The 2015 honorary degree recipients are Mr. Cook, Carol M. Watson, Ph.D. '78, former acting chair of the National Endowment of the Arts, and Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health. The university-wide ceremony on the National Mall follows a series of school celebrations May 14-17.

“This opportunity is unbelievable. If I can just inspire one person with my story, then I will have done my job,” Capt. Ruiz said.