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Staff Snapshot: Ruben E. Canedo, troublemaker

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When Ruben E. Canedo, chair of the Basic Needs Committee at UC Berkeley, tells one of the students he mentors that he gets what they’re going through, he means it.

Sometimes, aspects of his diverse background match theirs: Ruben is a first-generation college student who spent his childhood between Mexico and rural California; he came to Berkeley from an under-resourced community and members of his family were undocumented. He relied on financial support to attend college, including an impactful Pell Grant.

When he reached UC, Ruben never forgot what it was like to struggle at home — or stopped worrying about the loved ones he’d left behind. “I was terrified about being so far away,” he says. “Every time I got a call from someone in my family, I was afraid that my mom had been deported or that something else had gone wrong and I wasn’t there to help.”

And, aspects of school didn’t come as easily as he expected, despite his strong academic performance in high school. “I could do statistics all day, but when it came to English and collegiate writing, I was totally overwhelmed. We didn’t train for this type of writing in high school,” he says. “I flunked college writing and was put on academic probation. But throughout that first year, the EOP [educational opportunity program], Summer Bridge Program and bridges coalition were there for me. Members of these communities were open and willing to share their own challenges and experiences. People took time to tutor me and point me toward others who could help. I had never felt that amount of overwhelming community, love, care and support. I was absolutely in love with being in these spaces.”

It was this experience — of being embraced by a network of supportive peers and mentors who willingly devoted their time and energy to someone in need — that came to outline the trajectory of Ruben’s career. Today, he oftentimes finds himself holding space for students and peers in a similar way. “Many students are referred to me when they are ready to quit, are going through a major challenge or find themselves at a fork in the road,” he says. “Oftentimes, they’ve been made to believe that they’re the problem; that they are struggling and failing while everyone else has everything figured out. I interrupt this narrative by giving them examples of people from their communities who have excelled.”

“It’s not unusual for a student from an under-resourced community to have a bad year,” Ruben explains. “But students from these communities usually have GPAs that are on par with, or exceed, those from more affluent backgrounds by the time graduation rolls around. Their success doesn’t always come easily — they may need tutoring, therapy or a stronger commitment to themselves as individual human beings. But if others have gotten there, so can they. I try to explain that every day that students ask for and receive help, they gain the capacity and ability to help others.” 

In 2021, Ruben chose to share his experiences and the wisdom he gained through them by joining the UC Student Association and UC Advocacy Network in a congressional briefing about the future of the Pell Grant. “The Pell Grant was created to ensure that all U.S. citizens would have access to higher education to pursue their interests, skills and abilities. The thought was that they could then contribute their knowledge in meaningful ways to their communities and help them become healthier with each generation,” he says. “I was honored to contribute to the story of the Pell Grant, to share how these grants impacted me and to make sure that we will continue to see massive progress at the federal level for all things relating to higher ed.”

He explains that he participates in events like the Congressional briefing to inspire and energize others. “I want to celebrate our UC community members who show up and are committed to developing our students, staff, faculty and administrators, and who are actively contributing to making experiences healthier and better for all of us,” he says. “Our stories are all incredibly sacred. We all have a story and an important role in sharing and telling it. I hope that by experiencing my story, people will see themselves in it and be inspired to give back.”

Meet Ruben

Name: Ruben E. Canedo

Title: Chair, Basic Needs Committee

Department/Unit: Strategic Equity Initiatives, Division of Equity and Inclusion

Location: UC Berkeley 

When did you start working for UC? In 2007, when I was still a student.  

In five words or fewer, what do you do for UC? As I like to put it, I’m a community organizer who is actively committed to making as much trouble as possible to benefit our communities. I identify as a troublemaker because I’ve always asked questions of the status quo and pushed back to advocate for new perspectives. I always want to know why we have to follow a policy if it’s not working, or how we can do more to support our communities. Being a troublemaker includes a sense of creation, exploration, curiosity and innovation that I’ve always really loved and identified with.

Why do you love working for UC? I fully believe in the vision and the mission of this public research university as one that is committed to centering the public good, rather than benefitting private members or a board or endowment. At UC, we’re continuously asking how we can be and do better. As rising generations of students, faculty and staff come to UC — strong communities of people who are first-generation, low-income, working-class, LGBTQ+ or global migrants and refugees — they bring new life experiences that impact us all. We teach them how to ask the questions and we all move forward together.

What’s something people don’t know about you? I grew up in a very athletic family, so I love to move my body. And, as somebody who grew up with multiple disabilities, nature is where I find a lot of my medicine. I love going on long hikes and bike rides along the Bay. And, I’m a very community and chosen family-oriented person, so you’re always going to find me listening to and sharing music with my community, cooking or hosting in another way.

Who’s your dream dinner guest (living or dead) and why? Because of the times that we’re in, I would love to host a dinner and have a conversation with bell hooksGrace Lee Boggs and Octavia Butler. I call them aunties; aunties who I feel are my “femtors,” my role models, my teachers, my sages and my guides. What an honor to cook and to host them and just be absolutely in love with and in awe of the moment; to listen as much as possible and let all of that magic and abundance be cultivated so that I could then share everything that comes from that experience with our community members.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?  The best career advice I’ve received has been modeled for me by my femtors who have embodied it. The most important aspects of our careers are our relationships — how we care for each other, show up for each other and commit to designing a day-to-day environment that embraces and energizes the possibility of what can be accomplished. In every day and in every experience, we need to be sure that we’re creating the world that we want for our community.

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Editor’s note: To help raise awareness for the importance of the Pell Grant, consider signing the birthday card that we’re sending to Congress in recognition of the grant’s 50th anniversary. Together, we will highlight the need for continued student support.

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