As a low-income, first-generation college student from rural Arkansas, Roman Ruiz, a third-year doctoral student in the Graduate School of Education, is intimately familiar with the barriers to college access. He also knows the rewards. “By achieving a college degree and now attending Penn,” Roman explained, “I have been afforded upward socioeconomic mobility and an expanded choice set of career options – a markedly different trajectory than that of my siblings or other family members who have not experienced the same educational opportunities I have.” Because of these opportunities, Roman has been able to dedicate much of his professional career to providing higher education access to disadvantaged and underserved communities through outreach and research. In working with several organizations, Roman not only knows the importance of academic mentorship and student development, but has discovered how public policy can play a significant role in making higher education accessible for more Americans.
Prior to arriving at Penn, Roman received a Master of Education degree in Higher Education from the University of Arkansas. During his time at Arkansas, Roman also worked as an academic counselor with the University’s Educational Talent Search program, a federally funded early intervention college access TRiO program for low-income students who would be the first in their families to attend college. Through developing college preparation curriculum, delivering educational workshops, and providing individualized college counseling, Roman guided hundreds of disadvantaged students into postsecondary education. As a result of his commitment, Roman was selected in 2012 by the Council for Opportunity in Education to serve as a mentor for their National Student Leadership Congress (NSLC) in Washington, DC. This position saw Roman helping facilitate a six-day residential leadership development program at Georgetown University for over 150 pre-college students from across the country. Roman continues to participate in the program each summer; it’s one that he believes in. “The students leave NSLC transformed: politically engaged, empowered to lead, and connected to a support network of peers who, despite economic and social hardship, aspire to achieve a higher education.”
In 2014, Roman enrolled in Penn’s Graduate School of Education (GSE), seeking a Ph.D. with a specialization in Higher Education. For his pre-doctoral research, Roman works at Penn AHEAD (Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy) housed within GSE. Working with his research advisor and mentor, Dr. Laura W. Perna, helped spark Roman’s enthusiasm for studying public policy. In spring 2015, Roman assisted Dr. Perna in drafting congressional testimony on best practices for helping low-income and first-generation college students enter and succeed in higher education. In the process, Roman became more intrigued by the way in which conducting public policy research went hand in hand with promoting the social good of increasing higher education access and completion.
With funding assistance provided by the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative, Roman spent this past summer as a policy research associate within the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development (OPEPD). During his time at OPEPD, Roman was engaged in a variety of important projects, such as analyzing federal postsecondary datasets to frame policy proposals, monitoring legislation and media attention around the Department’s higher education policy agenda, and researching Senate lobbying activity for online and distance education. Roman also served as the lead author on a practice guide designed for educators and school administrators that documents research-based practices for improving high school education outcomes, which will be distributed at the upcoming White House Summit on Next Generation High Schools.
Currently, Roman continues to immerse himself in education policy by assisting with projects at Penn AHEAD while continuing to develop his own line of research, focusing on the importance of place as it relates to access to postsecondary education. His time with OPEPD has informed his work in two important ways. The first is the power of public policy, and how it can be used to expand educational opportunities to underserved student populations. The second is the recognition that policymakers demand timely, relevant research on the issues they are voting on. “Moving forward,” Roman explained, “I am committed to harnessing the power of rigorous research in order to inform public policy that will ultimately benefit those who stand the most to gain from achieving a higher education.”