Ricardo Cortez Cruz believes being a faculty member presents an opportunity to not only teach college students, but to mentor them one-on-one. “I try to be very accessible, open and student friendly,” Cruz said. “In my past, I felt like I was slipping through the educational cracks. I want to make sure that does not happen to any of my students, whether those in my classes or ones who come to me for mentoring.”
And come to Cruz they do. From the time he came to Illinois State in 1997 to teach in the English department, Cruz has been known as a visible, ethnic minority faculty member who will help anyone who approaches him. He said he doesn’t have the big diversity presentations on campus or active involvement in diversity affiliations, but word of mouth seems to attract students from all disciplines to his open office door.
“When I was nominated for the Strand Diversity Award (which Cruz received in 2009), I felt like my even being nominated was not for what I had done in groups, or any one glorious thing I had done, but rather the strength of what I had done one-on-one with students,” Cruz said. “My streetcred is that people know I am there if they need me. I work behind the scenes.”
Cruz said he counsels students to have heart and character. He tries to give his mentees something they will think back on in times of need. “I want to empower all those possible Ricardos out there who are falling through the cracks and not going forward with their lives,” he said. “I tell them it doesn’t matter where others are positioning you, but rather where you position yourself. The past does not need to equal the future unless you continue to live there.”
Cruz grew up in a very poor environment in Decatur, and he said that made him more committed to diversity and seeing that all people are treated fairly. A shy, quiet boy who was slow to read, Cruz said he turned to writing as a way to express himself and say things that couldn’t be said in verbal conversation. Creative writing was a way to address diversity and lower socioeconomic status, among other issues and concerns, giving him a voice that could take him beyond his life in a home where there were few books.
Some of his high school teachers encouraged Cruz to write for the school newspaper, and he had a guidance counselor who encouraged his interest in post-secondary education. “I didn’t come to college with the highest score,” he said. “But I knew I wanted to write. Writing is an act of freedom for me, a free-flowing, emotional act of freedom.”
Cruz said he writes urban friction, fiction that has a tension and points to reality, with the strength of the prose being the audience tension. “My writing can be graphic and violent, but there is always a message I am trying to impart,” Cruz said. “Sometimes my fiction points to the fact that there is a thin line between a hero and villain. I explore redeeming qualities in those who seem unredeemable and full of human flaws. When I give readings of my work, audiences sometimes expect me to be rougher. I don’t mind that tension because it is a vehicle for opening their minds.”
Opening minds is a goal that came to Cruz during his time at a community college. A faculty member read one of his papers and said he had plagiarized. He said it was an unforgiveable and unforgettable experience. “The faculty member judged me on the outside and did not take time to see what I was capable of doing,” Cruz said. “A higher education institution, especially a community college with open access, should embrace diversity and understand the wide range of student talents. That experience taught me to persevere and stick to things I love to do, like write. I realized that I had something to write for, writing as an agent of social change. For me, writing is not a tool. It is an aggressive, but not violent, weapon to change the way people think.”
Cruz is the author of two novels, Five Days of Bleeding and Straight Outta Compton, two works in collected nonfiction, Welcome to the Land of Freedom and My Flesh and Blood: Black Marks and Stigmata, and numerous creative works in magazines and journals. He teaches African-American literature, creative writing, pop culture, hip-hop literature, cultural studies and slanguage. Cruz is the recipient of the College of Arts & Sciences Outstanding Teacher Award and five Sigma Tau Delta Appreciation Certificates for Outstanding Teaching and Mentoring. For the past two years, he has served as a faculty member for the Paderborn American Studies Program that brings German students who come to a summer program at Illinois State as well as hosted area students in the HYPE program (Helping Youth Progress and Excel).
Cruz said he is committed to continuing his mentoring of those students who seek him out. “Anyone who has the heart and desire, I want to help,” he said. “Success is not a group of actions, but one domino knocking over others. I see myself as the wind pushing over that first domino.”