By Nathan Peterson

Going First—Keeping Step with Christ & Community

First in her family to go to college. First to earn a bachelor’s degree. First to earn a master’s. Ruth Castro has a history of going first.

Throughout her childhood, going to college wasn’t ever really discussed. “Everyone’s expected to work right after high school,” Ruth said. “That’s been the mentality culturally. It’s kind of the stereotypical Mexican American family.”

But college readiness courses in high school sparked Ruth’s desire to pursue higher education. Just a few weeks after graduating from the University of Chicago (UChicago) with her MA in Social Work Administration, Ruth reflected, “It’s empowering to pave my own path and set the example for future Mexican American leaders. It’s been a really good journey so far.” 

Putting Faith First

Though it’s empowering, going first is harder than billboards and bumper stickers let on. As she began applying for colleges, Ruth discovered one of the many challenges that confront an aspiring first-generation college student: a need for guidance. “I don’t have the luxury of going to family members and asking them for advice like, ‘What do you think of this career path?’” she said. “I’ve had to scramble for resources on my own.”

Fortunately, mentors and high school teachers came alongside Ruth to help her navigate this process. After earning her BA in Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 2015, an even bigger challenge awaited Ruth: making the cross-country move from California to Illinois for graduate school.

Exchanging balmy afternoons on the beach in Santa Monica for the Windy City’s blustery winters would have been challenge enough. But Ruth faced even greater obstacles. “I missed my family,” she said. “We’re very united, so it was very, very hard on me mentally and emotionally to start from scratch and build a new community. A lot of the time, to be honest, it felt lonely.”

In those still moments of sitting alone in her apartment, Ruth sensed that she needed something beyond just a new set of friends. She needed God. “I grew up going to church, but it was more of a chore,” she said. “It felt like I needed to do it because my parents made me. I never felt it internally.”  

With these things on her mind, Ruth began her first quarter at UChicago. Receiving an invitation to a Friendsgiving and then a Bible study with InterVarsity’s Graduate Christian Fellowship chapter, she went, a little nervous to meet so many new people. Looking back on those first moments, Ruth is grateful she took the risk.

From evening bonfires on the shore of Lake Michigan—helping Ruth feel a bit closer to the beaches of Santa Monica—to final exam study sessions and regular home meetings, the UChicago Graduate Christian Fellowship was exactly what she needed. “We’re able to empower and uplift each other during hard times in graduate programs,” she said. “We create an environment of trust, where we’re able to be inclusive and nonjudgmental, where we’re able to create long-lasting friendships with each other and with members in the community.”

Ruth’s perspective on her faith has completely changed as well. “The difference now is that I feel it in my heart to go to church,” she said. “I feel it in my heart to praise God. I feel it in my heart to read the Bible and pray. That’s the huge difference. It’s the drive, the motivation, the passion to commit and live a Christlike life. Being part of InterVarsity has given me an opportunity to connect more with God.”

First for a Reason

As Ruth continued in her studies at UChicago, going first just for the sake of going first wasn’t enough anymore. There needed to be something more, a purpose behind it. Attending Urbana 18 with three other friends from her chapter, Ruth discovered a key part of that purpose.

Of the many insightful Urbana seminars she heard, Ruth particularly resonated with Women of Color in Urban Ministry. After it was over, she talked with one of the speakers, Janet Singleterry, who shared more about her ministry with Servant Partners, a nonprofit dedicated to community transformation by walking alongside the urban poor.

Returning to UChicago, Ruth stayed in touch with Janet and began looking into an internship with Servant Partners. Through these programs, interns join Servant Partners in gathering and equipping leaders and also identifying other ways to partner with local communities. “I told God I wanted to work in a faith-based organization and work in church planting and community organizing. That’s exactly what Servant Partners does,” Ruth said.

This summer, she will begin a two-year internship in San José, California, with the nonprofit. She looks forward to moving to the inner city and helping to serve the Latino immigrant community—a community close to her heart, being a child of Mexican immigrants. “I want to do everything and anything I can to help that community just because it hits close to home,” she said.

Reflecting on her journey of firsts, Ruth said, “I always feel like God has been guiding me ever since I was a little girl.” And even as she looks ahead to possibly being the first in her family to earn a PhD after her internship, her focus has never strayed far from them: “I think that I would want to further my studies as a way of combining my educational skills and personal disadvantaged struggle to create broader social change in my own community. One of my long-term goals is to create a nonprofit that assists low-income students struggling with academics. I hope to encourage them to find their passions while also taking pride in their own identities.”


Are you starting graduate school this fall or know someone who is? InterVarsity ministers to not only undergraduate college students, but graduate students, like Ruth, and faculty as well. Find out more about Graduate and Faculty Ministry (GFM) and find a community at your campus by clicking the button below.

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