Profiles Of Extraordinary Graduates: Ruben Sepulveda

Thousands of college seniors around Boston, and thousands more around Massachusetts, graduate this month and go into the world. This Friday and last, WBUR profiled a few of those seniors whose stories we found remarkable. In our second of two reports, we meet Ruben Sepulveda, a young man down on his luck when a chance encounter at a Holyoke gas station turned his life around.

Holyoke Community College

Ruben Sepulveda on campus at Amherst College (Courtesy photo)

Three years ago, Ruben Sepulveda was in a truly low place in life. Homeless on the streets of New York City, he was sleeping on trains and buses and in parks.

But rock bottom came when Ruben lost visitation rights to see his baby girl.

“My daughter was about a year and a half,” he recalled. “I would go see her on occasion and my baby’s mother didn’t like the fact that I was bouncing around from here to there, no place to go.”

Despite not having seen his parents in 15 years, Ruben could think of nowhere else to go but their home in Holyoke. But moving home, at 32 years old, he felt lost. He was doing some writing, but he couldn’t find work and was constantly fighting with his parents.

Then one afternoon Ruben walked into a gas station to get a cup of coffee.

“I was depressed because I was writing at that time something for my daughter,” he remembered about that day. “It was kind of like my side of what had happened in my life and what not.”

“Why was it me, why was it this moment in this gas station? Neither one of us really have an answer except it happened.”
– Aliza Ansell, Ruben's mentor

So to see a woman standing in line with a big smile on her face annoyed Ruben. He challenged her on what she was so happy about.

The smiling woman was Aliza Ansell, and she happened to be the director of adult education at Holyoke Community College.

“I had just come from a professional development training of probably one of the top educators in the country and I was pumped!” she said. “And I started telling him about it, I started talking about how this educator in the LA school system really believes that kids can excel despite their backgrounds. And we actually got into a full philosophical discussion about parenting and can kids really succeed if they don’t have good parents.”

Ruben pushed back on that idea. “I had my issues with my parents,” he said, “and I was just like, you know, maybe parents are the ones to blame when things go wrong.”

After that day, the two continued to meet and held these long conversations on everything from parenting to the nature of the universe to physics. Aliza became something of a mother figure to Ruben and, eventually, she convinced him to check out Holyoke Community College.

Ruben agreed to take the placement test and scored much higher than he — or anyone at the school — expected. Before he knew it, Ruben found himself back in a classroom for the first time since he dropped out of high school at the age of 16.

The day he returned to school, Ruben was scared. “I was old,” he said. “I was terrified, I was like, oh my God, I’m going to sit in this classroom full of young kids and I’m going to stick out and everyone’s going to know.” On top of that, he worried that he wouldn’t be as sharp or as fast as his younger classmates, that everything would take him longer. But none of that turned out to be true.

“I was old. I was terrified. I was like, oh my God, I’m going to sit in this classroom full of young kids and I’m going to stick out.”
– Ruben Sepulveda

“That first day in class, I just knew that I could do this,” Ruben said. “I just felt this happiness that I haven’t really felt in a long time. I was like, ‘wow, this is it then, I’m going to school.’”

Just a month before class started, Ruben had finally found a job, working the overnight shift at a motel in town. “Usually when I got into school at about 8 in the morning, I had energy, I didn’t know where it came from,” he said. “But toward the end of the day, then I would be exhausted. But I was so happy to be in school in the mornings, it didn’t even bother me.”

Quickly, Ruben wanted more than what Holyoke Community College offered. He wanted a four-year school. Not just any school — one of the nation’s top colleges. Through a tutoring program run by Aliza, Ruben had met students from Amherst College, and he wanted that education for himself.

A couple years later, he got it. Ruben graduates on May 28 from Holyoke and he has already begun classes at Amherst. He is studying psychology, because he says he wants to better understand the mental health issues in his family and the effect they have had on his life. He is hoping to get back visitation rights to see his daughter soon, who is almost 6 years old now.

Ruben says he still can’t believe he is a student at Amherst College. “It’s ridiculous. I’m waiting for like a refrigerator to fall on my head,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t believe it. Sometimes I have to stop and look around and think about just a few years ago I was in a whole different world.”

Aliza and Ruben are forever analyzing why it was their chance encounter that changed his life.

“Why was it me, why was it this moment in this gas station?” she asked. “Neither one of us really have an answer except it happened.”

Regardless of why, the conversation they started that fateful day has come full circle.

“Ruben’s question is: Can people make it without parental support,” Aliza said. “And he did make it without parental support. He made it 100 percent without that.”

So, in the end, Ruben has proved himself wrong. “You can make it without your parents,” he said. “If you have people like Aliza and the army of people that I’ve had that have been there. They’re like, ‘Good job Ruben.’ You know, sometimes that’s all it takes. ‘Good job Ruben.’ ”

Ruben was part of the state Department of Higher Education’s “29 Who Shine,” a group of public college and university students honored for academic achievement and community engagement.

Last week, in WBUR’s profiles of graduating seniors, we met Beatriz Rivera, a youth activist, and Ross Caputi, an Iraq war veteran who is now outspoken in the anti-war movement.

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  • JDS

    The unsung heroes of Adult Learning Centers like the one that saved Ruben’s life deserve a huge dose of gratitude from all of us.  One human at a time, they change the world, instilling hope where there is despair, shining a light on goals that someone like Ruben would otherwise never see. Bravo to Ruben, and bravo to all of you!

    • http://www.facebook.com/rubensepulvedajr Ruben Sepulveda

      They do. They truly are heroes. And Thank you.


  • Amartinez267

    Holyoke community college can make differences in people ‘s lives…and also the effort that you Ruben put into it has the best end…congrats …
    It make me keep going
    Thanks Holyoke Community College!!!!

  • K.K.

    This article makes a crucial point- that although you can succeed without the help of parents, support and encouragement need to come from somewhere. This is why the world of adult education, so often overlooked, needs more funding and recognition. For all those who didn’t have the silver spoon, who didn’t have parents that read to them, or teachers who believed in them, these adult education centers are havens, and absolutely indispensable for a large population, Kudos to Ruben and the hard, under-recognized work of the teachers in adult education!

  • Rslowik

    Ruben, good for you,your story really resonated with me. I also grew up with parents that were less than supportive and never even suggested that I think of applying to college. I was in the industrial arts section of the high school and told that my twin brother got all of the brains.  I tried to quit high school 7 times, but luckily had a teacher keep me focused to graduatel. I worked as a welder/mechanic when I graduated high school. I joined Quinebaug Valley Community College in CT in 1988 and worked really and was accepted at Northeastern University in Boston. I graduated with a finance degree with honors and will graduate from Babson College this fall with my MBA (honors as well).  Keep working hard; there is nothing that comes easy, but the rewards for working hard are great.

    • http://www.facebook.com/rubensepulvedajr Ruben Sepulveda

      Thank You. I will keep at it. You also seemed to have experienced a bit of life, fortunately, with help, and through your hard work things worked out for you. Congrats to you too!

  • Evelyn Rosenthal

    What a wonderful story! Good job, Ruben; and good job, Aliza!

  • Aliza Ansell

    A chance encounter can change both lives. My life is richer with Ruben in it. We talk almost every day. He’s like a son to me. And yes, adult education is an amazing field to work in. Motivated adults with real life experiences that they bring to the classroom. There are many Rubens out there waiting for a chance encounter and a seat in an adult education program.

    Aliza (Zizi) Ansell

  • Gingerdc9

    Wow, this is just awesome! And his quote about “a refrigerator” falling on his head made me smile – I was say stuff like that when something really great happens to me.

    YOU GO! I’m proud for you & don’t even know you! :) I’m a mom to 3 and praying for your reunion with your daughter.

    • Gingerdc9

      Duh – I meant I “always” say, not “I was say…” Ugh.

    • Ruben Sepulveda

      Thank you! I mean that!

  • Dale Sutter McGrath 81E

    I am so happy to read Ruben’s story.  I was the first in my family to go to college.  My parents did not understand it.  We were very poor.  My father had problems with alcohol  and my mother was a single mom.  Everything I did was on my own, like Ruben.  I went to HCC and one professor in particular helped me go on to a 4 year school.  It was 1979 and Amherst College was accepting women.  I got in and spent two great years studying fine arts, History and English.   I met my husband at Amherst and we have five children,  4 with B.A.’s , two pursuing doctorates and one in high school.  My children are lucky to have parents who encourage and expect them to go to college.  Ruben and I did not, but we had something inside us that gave us the strength to do it.

    • Ruben Sepulveda

      Thank you for sharing your story! Are you local, meaning Western Mass? If you are we should have lunch sometime or dinner. Would love to hear more :)

      Ruben Sepulveda

  • Tormlee

    Good job Ruben and to all the other Rubens who have made it against the odds.

  • Tormlee

    Hey Ruben, There is a “little brother” that could use your inspiration and friendship.  Have you thought of passing it forward through the Big Brother Program?  The main office is right there in Amherst at the Bang Center.  You could ask about it at Amherst College’s CEE .

    • http://www.facebook.com/rubensepulvedajr Ruben Sepulveda

      I will look into it. And yes I have thought of passing it forward. I try to get as involved as possible. But I will stop in at the CCE and get the 411.

      Ruben Sepulveda ’13

  • Ruben Sepulveda

    Great job Ruben, by the way my name is Ruben Sepulveda how ironic? i was just doing a search on my name and there you are. I am glad to hear about your success because I to believe success is a natural driven part of us all and sometimes we need to have some help us find it. I was on my own at 16 and am now 42, I was on drugs as a youngster and was constantly lost in this world. I have done some good things for my self on my own with out no guidance but some people that just walked into my life. Life, is lot of paths and you never know what path you will cross. Wake each day and remember, the person who comes to you in life can even be a test from God, even though I see people struggling and even on the streets; i never knock them because we all never know how they got there. Be grateful, to be part of this life all the time because time does end for us someday and we all need to make the best of it.

    Pass it forward!God Bless to you and your daughter!Take careRuben Sepulveda

    • http://www.facebook.com/rubensepulvedajr Ruben Sepulveda

      Very True! Very true indeed. Thank You. And I will pass it forward. Glad that things for you are better as well. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/rubensepulvedajr Ruben Sepulveda

      Very True! Very true indeed. Thank You. And I will pass it forward. Glad that things for you are better as well. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/rubensepulvedajr Ruben Sepulveda

      Very True! Very true indeed. Thank You. And I will pass it forward. Glad that things for you are better as well. 

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