From the Court to the Classroom,
Cougars are Determined to Achieve
The University of Houston men’s basketball team finished the regular season with the nation's No. 1 ranking and captured its third straight American Athletic Conference regular-season championship. With a remarkable 31-3 overall record entering the NCAA Tournament, the Coogs earned a No. 1 seed for just the second time in school history. You don’t achieve that level of success without substantial grit and determination.
Need more proof? Six members of the team garnered individual awards from the AAC, including Player of the Year Marcus Sasser, Defensive Player of the Year Jamal Shead, Freshman of the Year Jarace Walker, Sixth Man of the Year Reggie Chaney, Most Improved Player of the Year J’Wan Roberts and Coach of the Year Kelvin Sampson.
The Coogs’ strong character and ability to overcome any challenge are traits that permeate well beyond the hardwood. Students and faculty across the UH campus are fueled by an unrelenting will to achieve.
UH senior Pedro Ruiz comes from a long line of ardent ranchers in Honduras and isn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty. Cattle ranching is grueling work – up before the sun, bust your back until nightfall kind of work. And while the family business has provided him a stable foundation and plenty of life lessons, Ruiz plans to apply his talent and tenacity elsewhere.
Exactly where, took a global pandemic to figure out.
At 19, he left his native country for the United States to attend Houston Community College. Not long after, the COVID-19 lockdown sent him back home. “I was lost during COVID,” he said. “I almost gave up a couple of times … I wanted to quit school.”
In the midst of grinding through online classes, still uncertain of a professional path to pursue, his family’s side business – a company that imports veterinary products like penicillin, anesthesia and ranch machinery from around the world – went bankrupt.
“Our suppliers kept canceling because we were not selling enough, and the bank was on our back to pay off the loans,” he said.
Ruiz and his older brother, Francisco, then a student at UH’s acclaimed Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship in the C. T. Bauer College of Business, worked together to pull the business back from the brink of collapse. Calling it a “really big deal” for his family, Ruiz said that challenging ordeal sparked his career calling.
“I found out that I absolutely love business. I want to dedicate my life to fixing and growing new businesses with that entrepreneurial spirit,” he said.
“I definitely have a mindset of hard work and hustle.
That's what I'm all about.”
- Pedro Ruiz
In 2021, Ruiz transferred from HCC to the University of Houston where, just like his brother before him, he was accepted into the highly-competitive Wolff Center. More than 150 students apply each year, but only about 30 are accepted. Ranked as the No. 1 undergraduate entrepreneurship program in the nation four consecutive years by The Princeton Review, the WCE prepares students for leadership roles in business by teaching them how to run their own business from the inception of an idea through its implementation. It has ranked in the Top 10 each year since 2007.
“The Wolff Center program is a perfect fit for me. It has opened my mind in a way that wouldn't have been possible if I had gone to another university,” he said.
With the entrepreneurial skills he’s learning at UH, Ruiz has now oversees operations of the family’s importation business and is planning for expansion in the United States. In fact, he just inked his first deal with a pet food company in Muenster, Texas. After graduation this spring, he will focus on growing his business portfolio to become what he calls a “serial entrepreneur.” Get a business. Build it. Sell it. Ruiz said that type of business culture doesn’t currently exist in Honduras, a developing country with a poverty rate as high as 74%, according to a Honduran government estimate.
“I’m a person who wants to give back to my country,” he said. “There’s a lack of opportunities there, but I actually think there's so much that can be accomplished because a lot of things have yet to be discovered.”
“I definitely have a mindset of hard work and hustle. That's what I'm all about.”
-By Chris Stipes
Dream Big, Little
Throughout much of her journey at the University of Houston, Mya Little took a full course load while also working multiple part-time jobs, including at the Center for Student Empowerment where she provided support and resources for fellow students. As the first person in her family to attend college, she possessed an unwavering determination to succeed – and to help others – despite any obstacle in her way.
Oh, there were obstacles.
For months at a time during her collegiate career, her living situation was unstable, often finding temporary shelter with friends or distant relatives. “Sometimes I just had to sleep at one of my friend's dorms for a couple of nights or at another friend's mom's house. I was grateful for their support, but it was tough,” she recalled.
Little grew up in a Southwest Houston neighborhood with few resources and high crime rates. Both of her brothers were incarcerated before they finished high school, she said. Little, on the other hand, sought a much different path. Always “very serious” about academics, she graduated in the top 10 of her high school class. Her steadfast commitment in the classroom helped her earn a $20,000 scholarship from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
“I was so happy for the opportunity because the idea of college in my family was just that, an idea,” said Little.
Once enrolled at UH in 2019, it was full speed ahead. As president of the student organization First Generation Coogs, she helped other “first-gen” students achieve their academic and career goals, all while pursuing her own. She also served as vice president of the UH chapter of the Collegiate 100, a national mentoring organization for Black students. Little is majoring in political science with a minor in corporate communications and African American studies. She’ll graduate this spring after four years of hard work.
“I have seen firsthand how the justice system impacts young men long after incarceration. So, I want to be an agent of justice.”
- Mya Little
Call it resilience … or faith. Maybe a combination of both.
“God has always been the reason why I do all of it,” she said, noting her time as an administrative intern for Houston Canterbury, the UH campus ministry of the Episcopal Church.
“Anyone can tell you that when I say I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it. I didn't even know how I was going to get to college, but through the support I received at UH, I found my way. It’s easy to give up, but I've never been someone who wants something to be easy. If it’s easy, then it’s not significant,” said Little.
In 2022, Little accomplished another noteworthy milestone when she was appointed to the UH Student Government Association Supreme Court. As the senior associate justice, she’s second in command of the SGA’s Judiciary Branch, which hears matters involving the constitutionality of legislation, disputes between the branches and election issues.
“I'm completely honored to have been selected for this position, of course. But it's definitely just a small step,” she said. “I don't count my victories in titles or accomplishments. I count victories by the impact that I have on people.”
Her time in the SGA courtroom, along with her tenure as president of the Black Pre-Law Student Association, gave her the experience and confidence to tackle her next challenge. Little hopes to attend law school and impact even more lives as an attorney. She currently works as a law clerk at a personal injury firm conducting legal research.
“I have seen firsthand how the justice system impacts young men long after incarceration. So, I want to be an agent of justice,” she said.
“Whatever I do, I do it with all my heart.”
-By Chris Stipes
Shooting for the Stars
In the fall of 2017, Caleb Broodo began his freshman year at the University of Houston with the raw goods - a strong high school grade point average, an interest in science and a desire to play basketball.
As he immersed himself in university life, another of his raw talents would emerge, his determination to succeed.
“My driving force, the reason I do anything at all, completely changed when I transitioned from high school to college at the University of Houston. I realized I needed to stop chasing happiness and start chasing character building,” Broodo admitted.
“There is no guarantee that happiness will last, but your character will remain throughout your entire life.”
In large part, Broodo’s drive to challenge himself and sharpen his character formed when he met the late Don Kouri, a UH physics professor. That meeting also influenced Broodo’s future pursuits.
While well on his way to earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Broodo began craving knowledge and asking questions about how the world works. That led him to physics, the discipline in which he is now pursuing his Ph.D.
To quench this thirst, he “cold called” Kouri, asking the professor to teach him quantum mechanics. Kouri agreed on the condition that Broodo come for lessons at his home. Broodo quickly learned the reason — Kouri had terminal cancer.
“Despite the fact that he was dying, I could see in his eyes he never felt more alive than when he was getting a chance to discuss physics,” said Broodo. “He continued to teach me until a week before his passing. It was this dedication and his excitement that galvanized my pursuit of science at the highest level.”
Yes, Broodo wants to become a professor.
“This University is the living embodiment of America, an illustration of what America is supposed to represent, a place where you can become anything you want to be under the condition that you pursue it deliberately.”
- Caleb Broodo
It was another mentor, UH Men’s Basketball Coach Kelvin Sampson, that propelled Broodo and inspired him outside the classroom. At 6’ 8” he could have played at other schools, but he craved the unique combination of Division 1 basketball and Tier One academics that UH offers. And so, he walked on to Sampson’s team in 2017, toward the beginning of its renaissance. The Cougars advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in the 2018-19 season, and made the Final Four in 2021, its first appearance since 1984.
“Basketball excited me. It was a sport I could be good at — not that I was 100% talented — but I worked hard and I played hard. I gave a lot of effort,” said Broodo. “That’s something Coach Sampson prioritizes … not necessarily if a player is a great shooter or has a nice step back, but what does his heart look like? Is it big enough to internalize coaching, leading a player to have the courage to grow?”
Post basketball and immersed in earning his Ph.D., Broodo now stays up nights pondering the implications of neutron stars across all physical disciplines. He works with experimental nuclear physicist Rene Bellwied, M.D. Anderson Chair Professor of Physics, and theoretical nuclear physicist Claudia Ratti, on high-level international projects.
“This University is the living embodiment of America, an illustration of what America is supposed to represent, a place where you can become anything you want to be under the condition that you pursue it deliberately,” said Broodo.
“Most students see this characterization illustrated in the freeway over pass in Houston on their morning commute to campus that reads, ‘Be Someone.’ At the University of Houston, a physicist can become a basketball player and equally as important, a basketball player can become a physicist.”
-By Laurie Fickman
There Is a Way
Ruth María López wants you to know a secret: Every time the road to success presents a detour, she turns to like-minded mentors who travel a similar path as hers.
“In the tough times, you must have community. It’s how I was taught. And now I’m passing that truth on to my children,” said López, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies in the University of Houston College of Education, where her focus on equity in public schools and her encouragement of students earned her the Provost’s Teaching Excellence Award for 2020-21.
Should your own journey be feeling stalled, López wants you to know her mother’s secret: Persevere.
“Perseverance is one of the biggest lessons my mom taught me. I witnessed my mother many times advocate for our education, and she was very resourceful,” said López, who grew up as the eldest of four children of immigrant parents who deeply valued learning yet did not have the opportunity to finish the equivalent of high school in their original countries.
Despite being very aware of her household’s struggles, López’ dreams stayed alive. “I always knew I was going to go to college, I just didn’t know how it was going to happen.”
Along the way she found encouraging people who supported her dreams, such as a LULAC National Education Services Center (LNESC) mentor in her teen years. She also reached out to groups that offered resources – from campus visits in high school through tuition for her doctoral studies in educational foundations, policy and practice. Now as a rising star in higher education, López is determined to open access to those same resources for her students.
“Every opportunity has come to me because I took a leap of faith, but I wasn't ever alone.
You can find your path, too.”
- Ruth María López
“In my journey there have been people who made my future possible. I found help from the National Hispanic Institute, the LNESC-Dallas Program, and the University Outreach Program, which was a University of Texas program for urban-area high schools,” López said. Upon graduation, she gave back to University Outreach as a counselor in Houston, helping students from similar backgrounds find their path for college.
“These programs invested in my peers and me. They trained us as leaders, inspired us to become civically engaged, told us we have a voice and let us know we have a responsibility to our community. They also informed us about the lineage of people we come from. It’s been a source of strength for me,” López said.
On Feb. 1, she had the opportunity to say thank you to some of the champions from her youth as she accepted the TRIO Achiever Award – TRIO is a series of federal programs aimed at helping students overcome class, social and cultural barriers to higher education. In the audience were her earliest supporters – her mother and siblings.
Which brings López to one more thing she wants you to know about life’s journey: You might never know the lasting power of your words.
Joining her on the dais for the award ceremony, outside of her hometown of Dallas, was her nominator, Renato “Rey” de los Santos – the LNESC mentor whose words 25 years before, convinced a very young Ruth María López to believe she could shine and become the first in her family to attend college.
“Every opportunity has come to me because I took a leap of faith, but I wasn't ever alone. You can find your path, too,” López said.
-By Sally Strong