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Teachers College, Columbia University
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Diana Ruiz: Mentored for success

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Teachers College graduates make an impact in many ways – not least by mentoring future Teachers College graduates.

Case in point: the story of Diana Ruiz, who graduated this spring with a master's degree in Speech and Language Pathology.

Ruiz’s parents came to the United States from the Dominican Republic. Ruiz grew up in the Washington Heights section of New York City, where she had to work to help out with family expenses after her parents divorced. Thanks to the Summer Youth Employment Program in her neighborhood, and to her mother, who encouraged her,  at the age of 13 Ruiz managed to land a job as a file clerk at Columbia University Medical Center’s Sergievsky Center, which focuses on the genetic analysis of neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases.  It was there that she came under the direct supervision of Teachers College alumna Helen Mejia-Santana, the center’s Senior Staff Officer of Research.

Thanks to Mejia-Santana, Ruiz has continued to work at the Sergievsky Center ever since, rising to the position of Research Assistant by the time she graduated from TC. In that role she coordinated data for efforts to locate genetic disease markers. Along the way, she provided interpretation services between Spanish speaking patients and the Speech/Language Pathologist at Columbia’s Huntington’s Disease Center – an experience that led her to her current field.

“I’d always known that I wanted to work in a medical field helping others, but the chance to see neurologists working and to learn what they do really opened up new paths for me,” she says. “The speech pathologist I worked with through Columbia told me how broad the field was and how many opportunities there were. I took a few non-matriculating courses and saw how essential it is for people to be able to communicate. Some people with Huntington’s don’t have dementia, they just can’t communicate.”

At TC, where she studied courtesy of a scholarship from the New York City Department of Education, Ruiz traveled to Bolivia to work with speech-impaired children through the Bilingual Speech Pathology Extension program run by Professor Cate Crowley.
 
“The Bolivia trip made me more sensitive, more empathetic to people in different situations,” she says.  “I expect that the experience of having to provide therapy with a bare minimum of resources will have prepared me for anything – that, and being in a situation where Spanish is not only a choice language, but the only language.”

This fall, when Ruiz works in a high-need New York City school, she will be mindful not only of helping children with speech and language, but also of helping them shape their dreams – just as Helen Mejia-Santana helped shape hers.

“Helen has been like a second mom to me,” says Diana. “She’s played such a major role in the career decisions I’ve made.”


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