From Wasco to Princeton: Alexis Cruz Overcomes All Odds

Wednesday June 5, 2024

Wasco native Alexis Cruz, 19, has a remarkable story to share — one marked by perseverance, resilience and impassioned support. He experienced hearing loss early in life, which presented challenges that could have easily limited his potential. Instead, these obstacles became the stepping stones leading him to the prestigious halls of Princeton University, where he recently finished his first year.

“I consider myself to be a normal kid,” Cruz said. “I do realize that I have a disability. But thanks to my parents who always supported me along the way. It didn’t feel like I had any disability.”

Amy Robertson, an audiologist with the Kern County Superintendent of Schools (KCSOS), first met Cruz in kindergarten when he was 5 years old. Cruz had recently been fitted with hearing aids, but they were insufficient for his level of hearing loss. Robertson quickly realized the need for more advanced technology and urged his family to have him evaluated for cochlear implants in Los Angeles.

“They’re very tenacious,” Robertson said. “His parents are a testament of how hard they’ve worked to get him where he is.”

Alexis on the first day of preschool (left) before he was officially diagnosed with profound hearing loss. Alexis at 8 years old with cochlear implant in his left ear.

Cruz received a cochlear implant in his left ear, a surgically implanted device in the inner ear to pick up and process auditory signals. It significantly improved his ability to hear and communicate. However, it wasn’t until seven years later that he received an implant for his right ear, requiring ongoing efforts to train his brain to process sounds from both ears.

“He’s not hearing acoustically. He’s hearing electrically, directly to his inner ear via the implant,” Robertson explained.

Cruz attended elementary school in the Wasco Union Elementary School District before transferring to Bard Academy in Delano, which later became the Wonderful College Preparatory Academy. Throughout high school, Cruz was hungry for knowledge. He enjoyed most of his classes but especially loved math and physics. He also participated in several clubs and sports like soccer and cross-country and played the saxophone and the trumpet in the school band.

Cruz is quick to thank his family for always being there to support and love him. He recalled a time in ninth grade when his mother woke at five in the morning to take him to Delano for cross-country practice. Margarita Cruz said her other children were also incredibly supportive, helping Alexis with schoolwork and attending all his audio therapy appointments without complaint.

Throughout his education, Cruz benefited from the consistent support of educators like Marisol Escudero, a Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Itinerant Teacher at KCSOS, who has worked with him since eighth grade.

Alexis Cruz running in a cross-country competition.

Cruz poses with Amy Robertson (right) and Marisol Escudero

“My role was making sure that he was a good advocate for himself and working with his district team to make those classes more inclusive for him,” Escudero said.

Escudero says she is amazed by his talent, his consistent hard work, and his family’s unwavering dedication to see him succeed.

“They’re amazing parents to work with. They are a full force,” she said. I think sometimes they don’t realize how much they’ve done for him and just the sacrifices they’ve made. They fight for him and never give up.”

Robertson said so many barriers could have held Cruz back on his educational journey, but he persevered and fought for his success. Through it all, he remains humble and modest.  

“There’s no stumbling block that ever hit him,” Robertson said. “This boy doesn’t stop for anything. He’s so very, very bright.”

Escudero agreed and added even Cruz doesn’t truly understand just how special he is.

“As smart as he is, he is humble. He doesn’t want to be a burden to anybody, so it was hard for him to ask for help,” she said. “‘Alexis, it is a big deal. You are a big deal,’” Escudero  told him during a recent gathering.

Cruz’s academic journey was not without its struggles. He found it challenging to communicate with peers, leading to feelings of isolation during his early school years. However, as he grew older and became more aware of the resources available, he began to thrive academically and socially.

Alexis Cruz and his mother, Margarita, looking at family photo albums.

“I did have a lot of problems communicating with children my age because obviously it was hard for me to hear them,” Cruz said. “As I grew up, I started becoming aware of the resources I had access to, which helped me immensely.”

Cruz’s hard work and determination culminated in his graduation from high school as valedictorian with a 4.5 GPA and an AA from Bakersfield College. He was accepted into several prestigious institutions including The University of Chicago, University of Michigan, UC Berkeley, and Georgia Tech to name a few, but he decided to attend Princeton University, where he is pursuing a degree in civil engineering.

“It’s $84,000 a year to go to Princeton. He got a full ride!” Robertson said. “They don’t give that to you just because you have hearing loss. It’s a testament to his perseverance, his intellect, and how hard he’s worked.”

During his first year at Princeton, Cruz dedicated himself to his core engineering classes and joined the club Engineering Without Borders. The club is designing an irrigation system to help farmers in a small Peruvian town access water more efficiently. He will go with his team to install the water system in August.

Programs like the Freshman Scholars Institute, which helps incoming first-year students immerse themselves in Princeton’s new environment, smoothed his transition. Despite initial challenges, including understanding his roommate’s thick Cameroonian accent, Alexis quickly adapted and formed lasting friendships.

Cruz says there are many great resources at Princeton for him and other students with disabilities. His professors have been very accommodating to his needs, and the Office of Disability and Accessibility on campus provides him with additional support.

“It’s a safe space for me to go whenever I want to go there and do homework or talk to other people with similar disabilities,” he said.

The support of his family has been a cornerstone of Cruz’s success. His parents, who immigrated from Mexico, provided unwavering encouragement, treating him the same as his siblings while ensuring he received the necessary support for his disability.

“We wanted to make sure he could grow up knowing he wasn’t different,” Cruz’s mother said. “I always tell my kids as long as there’s sincerity, honesty and trust within our family, we know that we’re going to be in a good place.”

Robertson and Escudero have also played significant roles in Cruz’s journey. With her audiology expertise, Robertson ensured Alexis had the best auditory access, while Escudero’s guidance helped him navigate the educational system and advocate for his needs.

Their contribution to his education was so impactful that Cruz wanted Robertson and Escudero to see him graduate from high school. He was only given two tickets, which went to his parents, but Cruz sent an email to his principal and asked for permission to have two extra guests at the ceremony. It was there that Robertson and Escudero discovered Cruz had been named the school’s valedictorian. In his speech, he thanked them for all their years of service.  

“Thank you for guiding me through life as a person with a deaf disability,” he said in his speech. “If it weren’t for your doing, I wouldn’t have been able to hear the world.”

Alexis graduating high school from Wonderful College Prep Academy (left). Alexis graduating concurrently from Bakersfield College with AA degree (right).

A year later, as Cruz excitedly looks to embark on his second year of studies at Princeton, his aspirations extend beyond his bachelor’s degree. He plans to work in engineering for a few years before pursuing a master’s degree, with institutions like UC Berkeley and MIT in his sights.

“I want to be a project leader on large-scale, important projects,” he said. “I like that feeling of responsibility. It’ll be hard work, but I can manage all this.”

Alexis Cruz’s journey from Wasco to Princeton is a powerful reminder that with determination, support and resilience, no obstacle is insurmountable. His story inspires others to pursue their dreams, regardless of their challenges.

“I’m just so proud of him,” his mother said.

By Katie Avery

By Katie Avery

Katie Avery joined the Kern County Superintendent of Schools in 2023 as a Communications Specialist. As a former journalist and marketing professional, her passions include media and storytelling. Before joining KCSOS, Avery worked for various local TV stations as well as the health care industry.