“By investing in Columbia students, I feel like I'm giving to the world.”
A pebble in the lake
Milagro Ruiz remembers standing on the steps of Low Library for the first time, looking out at the campus she was about to call home. "I was thinking I have everything I need to learn about life and the world right here in one place," she says. "I was elated — and terrified. No one in my family had even dreamed of going to college."
Milagro was born in Brooklyn. Her mother had recently come to New York from Puerto Rico with the hope of creating a new life for herself and her kids. After a series of hardships, she ended up in a women's shelter, and Milagro — then just three-and-a-half years old — was placed in a Catholic group home on Long Island.
“Columbia was this enclave in the city where my roots were, and I needed those roots desperately.”
"It was harsh," recalls Milagro. "We slept twenty in a room on army cots, but at least I wasn't growing up on the streets." There were other bright spots as well. The director of the orphanage saw something special in her. Unbeknownst to her at the time, he paid for her to attend a private high school, and he cosigned for her to go to one of the area's top secretarial schools.
"He dropped a pebble in the lake, and it rippled," Milagro says. "It was up to me to see the opportunity, grab hold, and take it further."
Climbing the steps
As a young woman in her twenties, Milagro was working as a secretary and heard that her company was making a push to train up its employees. The person she met with about the program happened to be a Columbia graduate.
"He asked me what I wanted to do when I grow up," Milagro says. "I told him I loved to dance, and he said, 'No, seriously.' " She remembered watching Perry Mason as a girl and thinking that if she could be a private secretary to an attorney, she could see the world. "Well, he told me I should be the attorney," she says, "and that I could go to Columbia. I nearly fell out of my chair!"
She decided to do it. Her first step was to take a secretarial job at Low Library and enroll part time in the School of General Studies. Eventually, as she received more scholarship funding, she was able to attend college full-time.
A Spanish Literature major, she'd take the train to Brooklyn on the weekends to visit her mother, who had once again become a part of her life. "I would sit and read this rich Spanish literature to her," she recalls. "It was beautiful. That's how I got to know my mother, and that's how I got to know about love — that it comes how a person can give it to you, not always how you want it."
Milagro counts her years at Columbia as among her happiest. "I loved that as an adult I could still get a college education from such a historic, prestigious university," she says. "Columbia was this enclave in the city where my roots were, and I needed those roots desperately. For the first time I was discovering who I was and what I was capable of, and I don't think I would have survived anywhere else."
After Columbia, she got her law degree from NYU and moved to California to start her career and to be a supportive presence for her sister and young nephews. Every step was a challenge. "The beautiful thing about challenges is that they fill out your life, reaching into every corner of your soul," she says. "They force you to go deep to find out who you are."
In the decades that followed, she led a successful career as an attorney. She retired in 2013 to dive into all the things that bring her joy — surfing and photography with her husband, taking courses at a local college, and being a loving aunt and an inspiration to her nieces and nephews.
"Giving to the world"
Milagro is making a gift through her will to the Charlotte Newcombe Foundation Scholarship Fund at the School of General Studies, supporting scholarships for returning and nontraditional students enrolled at the School. She received a Newcombe Scholarship herself as a student and is now paying that generosity forward.
"That scholarship allowed me to dedicate myself to my studies full-time," Milagro says. "Without it, it would have taken me several more years to get my degree. It let me move ahead with my life."
Her gift will help others live out their possibilities as well. "These people have made the decision to better themselves, to grow and have an impact on others," she says. "That's exactly who I want to invest in. They might not have the money, but they are hungry for an education so they can go out and make the world a better place.
"You know, the beautiful thing about giving is that you never know what you're going to get back."
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