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The Power of Perseverance

Student Michael Cruz plans to use his past experiences and psychology degree to pay it forward

Three students talk and laugh while sitting in a dorm room.

Michael Cruz’s decision to major in psychology has as much to do with his past as it does with his future.

The NC State sophomore, who is also majoring in Arabic, has met and overcome more than his fair share of hard knocks. After being trapped in an abusive situation for years, he eventually wound up in the foster care system. But Cruz has come away from such difficult experiences with a positivity that is contagious and a willingness to pay it forward that is admirable.

“My experiences have shaped the person I am today and given me my goal in life,” he says, with a brave determination reserved for someone far beyond his 19 years. 

His goal? To use his psychology degree to raise awareness of the struggles kids in foster care face and provide them with emotional, physical and spiritual support.

For Cruz, the first in his immediate family to attend college, the road to realizing his goal steered him straight to NC State.

Cruz preparing for a chess match at Tucker Hall, where he is affectionately known as “Big Mike.”

With his past experiences firmly rooted in the past Cruz has his sights set on a hopeful future. Along with earning his bachelor’s degree, Cruz is gaining valuable real-world experience as a resident advisor (RA) and a mentor. Through a service-learning class the Department of Psychology offers, he helps elementary-age students increase their reading and writing literacy. Additionally, he volunteers every Wednesday at UNC Rex Hospital and plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work.

He sees these steps leading to a career in clinical social work and helping foster kids, especially those placed in group homes and mental health facilities.

“I want to be that person I wish was there for me when I was younger,” he says.

Cruz’s story is a mix of anxiety and hope. When he was five years old, he was living with his mother and her boyfriend in the Bronx, New York, and for a time their home life was normal. But that changed in a flash, he says.

Cruz speaks with a sober detachment of the family’s move through New York’s shelter system and the recurrent abuse he endured for years at the hand of his mother’s boyfriend. By the time Cruz turned 15, his family was living in North Carolina and his abuser was forced out of the picture.

I want to be that person I wish was there for me when I was younger.

His mother’s personal issues, however, took a toll. That’s when Cruz, his brother and his sister, entered the foster care system. Lutheran Services Carolinas – a non-profit organization Cruz lovingly describes as helpful —  placed the three siblings in separate foster homes.

Cruz says he experienced a different kind of trauma during his two years in government-operated foster care. Those years were mired with complications that arise when “the system creates more problems than it solves,” he explains. 

His foster families gave him a home. But the system never gave him “a comfortable place to heal,” Cruz adds.

Throughout his harrowing 12-year journey, Cruz found refuge in school, where he excelled. A line from his valedictorian speech to his Goldsboro High School graduating class reflects the challenge he set for himself and others: “You can stay a prisoner of your past or become the leader of your future.”

Cruz’s choice is clear. “A lot of what happened to me was a blessing. So, I will be able to help people from experience, not a textbook,” says Cruz, who has reconnected with his mother and siblings. “It is hard to change the entire foster care system but easy to change one person’s experience.”

Attending NC State, thanks to various federal and state assistance, will help Cruz help others. “Living at school is giving me the freedom to develop my independence and define who I am,” Cruz says. 

Working as a RA is “good training for what I want to do,” adds Cruz, who is affectionately known at Tucker Hall as “Big Mike.” The role has also helped him develop leadership skills, recognize signs of distress among students and, he hopes, make a difference in their lives.

Cruz, center, sees his role as a resident advisor as helping him make a difference in students’ lives and prepare for his future career.

His classes will also help, Cruz says, adding that his favorite so far is abnormal psychology. Cruz says his professors are very responsive, present material in an understandable way, and provide experiential learning opportunities like the literacy program he hopes to stay involved in next year.

In addition, Cruz, who converted to Islam last year, wants to boost his Arabic language skills by studying abroad in Jordan for two months this summer.

He also loves NC State’s dynamic campus life. There is “always something happening and so many different ways to get involved,” he says. Most importantly, he adds, NC State “provided me with an environment for healing.” 

What does he hope readers will learn from his story? “Life gets easier if you keep on pushing forward,” says Cruz.

By all accounts, he is proof positive of the power of perseverance.