Mathews: Meet Fabiola, one of California’s most unlikely philanthropists

Among the thousands of students graduating San Diego State this weekend is one of California’s most unlikely philanthropists.

I first profiled Fabiola Moreno Ruelas, now 21, three summers ago, after meeting her in Gonzales, her hometown in the Salinas Valley. Her story was straightforward—but unforgettable.

Fabiola had few resources growing up. Her father was deported, her family was evicted from housing, and she and her mother relied on food stamps to eat and on donations from neighbors for clothes and schoolbooks. She did well in school, but needed scholarships for tuition and living expenses—from Gonzales community members—to go to college.

As a teen, Fabiola was injured in a car accident — fracturing her skull, wrist, and back. But that accident would improve her fortunes. At 18, she received a $29,000 settlement.

Then she made a remarkable choice. Rather than spend the money on herself o family, she started her own scholarship fund, the Ruelas Fulfillment Foundation, to give back to Gonzales. She launched with $500 grants to four Gonzales kids to cover college living expenses.

After I met Fabiola in summer 2019, she returned to San Diego for her sophomore year. Dropout rates are high for first-generation college students from less advantaged families. She says she found university difficult during her freshman year, and that she had contemplated leaving school.

In the end, her instinct for giving would see her through.

But it wasn’t easy. In her sophomore fall, the academic demands grew, and she juggled two and three jobs to afford to stay in school. Then, early in 2020, she suffered two personal blows. In January, she got the tragic news that her father had died in Mexico. Just weeks later, her stepfather, got hit by a big rig while riding a bicycle and suffered near-fatal head injuries.

As Fabiola was processing those hardships, COVID hit. She was a student resident advisor in a dorm—so when campus shut down, she at once lost her place to live and one of her jobs. She went home, only to confront more death and grief. COVID fatality rates were especially high in the Salinas Valley in spring and summer 2020. She felt unhealthy and isolated.

“At that point, I really did feel like I lost everything,” Fabiola tells me. “I was grieving my father and then my stepfather … I was grieving my [student] residents.”

She says she found purpose, and comfort, in giving away money. She funded three more students through her scholarship fund. And during the George Floyd-inspired protests in summer 2020, she decided to give $1,000 from the fund to the NAACP chapter at San Diego State.

She stayed enrolled in school, conducted virtually, and soon found online work, mentoring and tutoring other first-generation low-income students through their first years in college. She also got a boost from emergency federal payments to college students, though she was outraged that some other students—those without legal immigration status—weren’t eligible for the federal money. So, in January 2021, she made two more grants from her college fund to undocumented students, both at San Diego State. When she was down, one grantee—an engineering student—gave her a pep talk.

She was always busy, between work (one job was in the university donor relations office) and studying political science. But she still found time to join student organizations and government—including as vice president of systemwide affairs for the California State Student Association, and as San Diego State’s student diversity commissioner for Associated Students and as vice president of Educational Opportunity Program advisory board.

Graduating, she says, feels more like a beginning than an end. She’s not just the first college graduate in her family. She managed, barely, to graduate without taking on debt. That will make it easier for her to do what she really wants: give away money.

All told, Fabiola has now given scholarships to 12 students from Gonzales High School, along with the NAACP and college students’ grants. She is raising money for more scholarships, to help students meet their basic needs.

She may make a wider impact, too, since the governor put her on his vision council for reimagining post-secondary education. And while she isn’t sure what’s next, she can raise money, and has first-hand experience in increasing higher education access.

Perhaps she could become Cal State chancellor, she muses.

The job is open.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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