Meet a Flinn Scholar: Ruben Alonzo and Sarah McDonald

March 16, 2006

By hammersmith

Come next November Sarah McDonald, an award-winning agriculture student, will return home to her family’s ranch on the Arizona-Mexico border. There, as the sun rises, Sarah will help her dad round up their calves. It is a tradition that Sarah returns home for every year. The memory of riding at daybreak, flanked by her dad and two weathered Mexican vaqueros, is one that Sarah treasures.

That same month Ruben Alonzo will be pounding the pavement one last time to persuade people to vote for the politician he has stood beside since freshman year: Attorney General Terry Goddard. This final win is more important to Ruben than ever before because this time he is not just another campaign volunteer; at age 23, Ruben was picked by Goddard to run his re-election campaign.

If Ruben and Sarah appear to be set apart by the diversity of their interests, they have one thing in common: depth. At the start of their undergraduate careers, these two Scholars knew what their passions were, and they committed themselves to digging deeper into them.

While their successes are theirs to claim because of the time and work that they have clocked, they freely admit that life could be have been very different for them. Prior to receiving the Flinn Scholarship and deciding to stay in-state, both Ruben and Sarah were set to leave Arizona behind upon graduating from high school.

Their decisions to stay changed everything.

Because Sarah stayed in Arizona, she returned home often to help her parents at the ranch, and discovered the depths of her roots in the land. In May Sarah will graduate from University of Arizona. She will enroll in UA’s nationally ranked environmental and water resource economics graduate program to study the mediation between land conservation and property rights.

For Ruben, staying in Arizona led to meeting Terry Goddard at a Flinn Public Policy Seminar his freshman year. Ruben has been working for him ever since. Once Goddard’s reelection campaign is over, Ruben will set his sights on his larger goal: turning Arizona blue.

Like so many high school students, Ruben and Sarah once felt the pull of out-of-state schools; but since deciding to become Flinn Scholars, they have found their happiness right here. And as new successes lead to new calls from other states, they remain firm in that conviction, saying that they plan to stay in Arizona indefinitely.

Their future, they say, is here.

Ruben Alonzo: In the thick of Arizona politics

So much has happened since Ruben graduated high school.

Once a senior raring to leave Arizona, he almost turned down the Flinn Scholarship in favor of attending Notre Dame University. At the last minute he changed his mind, accepted the Flinn, and enrolled at Arizona State University.

According to Ruben, it was a fateful decision.

During his senior year of high school, Ruben started getting involved in politics. It was the spring of 2000, and the presidential election campaign was well underway.

He enthusiastically watched all of the debates, voraciously read all of the election articles in the papers. When the Yuma County Democratic Headquarters opened up, Ruben could not stay away. He was the youngest person to attend the open house, and he signed up to volunteer.

On Election Day he handed out materials on Al Gore and stayed up into the late hours of the night watching election results. Ruben calls that election a turning point for him; after that, he began to rethink his planned career in engineering.

When Ruben started his freshman year at ASU, he declared political science as his major and joined the campus group Young Democrats.

Around the same time, Ruben was also participating in the Flinn Scholars Program’s Public Policy Series. In 2001, Terry Goddard was running the series, which focused on the topic of water rights. Ruben, who attended every seminar, had heard about Goddard through his newly established political network and was impressed by the wealth of knowledge that Goddard brought to the public policy series. After one particular seminar, Ruben approached Goddard and “cut to the chase,” asking him about rumors of a run for the governor seat.

Goddard said he had decided to run for Attorney General instead, and Ruben offered to volunteer for the campaign.

“If you need any help, let me know.”

Goddard responded immediately: “Really? What are you doing next semester?”

Ruben rearranged his schedule to work on Goddard’s election campaign, sandwiching 16 credit hours into a Tuesday/Thursday schedule and working at the office full-time on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

As he became more involved in Arizona politics, volunteering for other Democratic candidates, he also rose through the ranks of the Young Democrats, first achieving the office of president of the state chapter, then being selected to serve as Southwest regional director for Young Democrats of America, the position he currently holds.

What Ruben loves most about politics is the behind the scenes strategizing, which he got the chance to do in 2004, running John Kerry’s presidential campaign in Yuma and parts of La Paz County.

As a field organizer in the southwestern corner of the state, Ruben had his own office and ran the campaign almost entirely on his own. He worked 12-hour days, seven days a week. For motivation he watched his West Wing DVDs.

Near the end of the election, the Democratic National Committee decided to pull its staff out from Arizona to focus on states it thought it could win: New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado. Ruben said that he faced a lot of pressure to relocate to New Mexico but in the end decided he could not leave after investing so much in Arizona.

“This is home,” he said. “I didn’t want to just leave. I wanted to keep the momentum going.”

In Phoenix he trained field organizers and served on the campaign’s leadership team.

After the campaign, Ruben returned to school and worked as the community outreach coordinator for the Attorney General’s office up until January of 2005, when Goddard chose him to run the reelection campaign. Now Ruben’s days are booked solid with meetings and trips to southern and northern Arizona.

Once the election is over, Ruben is not sure what he will do next. But he is not too worried.

“One thing I learned in college is that life is determined by circumstances,” he said. “Politics especially is determined by circumstances.”

However, Ruben does know one thing he wants to do at some point in the future: return to the small village of Las Penas de Mollepongo, Ecuador.

The summer after Goddard was elected Attorney General, Ruben traveled to Ecuador with Flinn travel money in order to volunteer. Through a nonprofit, Ruben was assigned to build an irrigation ditch. The project, funded by Austrian donors, was to make life easier for the villagers and keep them from moving away to the larger cities.

He was the only volunteer and foreigner in the village of 200, and during his two months of summer volunteering, Ruben said he got used to working alone during the day and then at night enjoying the company of the families who insisted on feeding him.

“Everyone asked about 9-11, so we would discuss global issues,” he said. “Then they would always ask me for help.”

Ruben did what he could by not only building an irrigation system but also by constructing a bathroom for his house. He also conducted the town’s first census.

But the villager’s calls for help still resonate with him. At the end of his trip, he promised to return. He plans to stay true to that promise.

Sarah McDonald: Home on the Range

In Sarah’s house, which she shares with two other Flinn Scholars, pictures taken abroad line one of the walls. But Sarah’s favorite picture from her trip last year to Kenya stays in her room. Captured when her parents were visiting her in East Africa, the picture epitomizes her passions and concerns.

The picture depicts her dad, who stands over six feet tall, walking in cowboy boots beside a short Masai tribesman dressed in colorful traditional garb, absorbed in their conversation about cattle

For Sarah, this picture symbolizes the bridge that has been formed between her family and the Masai of rural Kenya.

“There was no barrier separating them despite all their differences,” said Sarah. “The Masai man had no formal education, 4 wives, and such a different lifestyle; but they connected over the landscape and their desire to preserve open land spaces. They bonded over intangibles.”

It is remarkable to speak to Sarah and hear about all that she is done. She is a rancher who can brand and corral cattle, an award-winning agriculture communicator, a mentor to high school students, a participant in UA’s classics program in Orvieto, Italy, and the only female on her study abroad program invited to participate in the Masai’s cow-blood-drinking ceremony.

The activities seem disparate, but a closer look reveals that there is one dominant theme: bridging divides.

Like Ruben, Sarah thought she would end up as far away from the desert as possible. Growing up as the only child on her parent’s sprawling ranch, she wanted to leave for the East Coast, and she almost ended up at Cornell University.

But then she got the Flinn Scholarship and upon arriving at UA, understood how special and unique her ranching lifestyle was. Thus was born her desire to cherish it and build on it, bridging her past small town life to the present.

Sarah’s primary interest in agriculture relates to pastoralism, or the social and economic system based on the raising and herding of livestock. She wants to understand how the economics of pastoralism can be linked to the conservation of land.

This is an issue that she has been helping her parents tackle for as long as she can remember. In 1993, her parents founded a nonprofit organization for the purpose of connecting ranchers, environmentalists, and scientists to conduct research and promote the maintenance of open space.

A few years ago an environmentalist in Kenya had reached out to Sarah’s parents. He had observed many parallels between his country and the United States in terms of the economic pressures that threatened to marginalize pastoralism and the rancher lifestyle.

This exchange sparked Sarah’s interest in East Africa. During her sophomore year members of the Kenyan Masai tribe visited her parents’ ranch for one mont, and one year later she left for Kenya for a semester.

Ask her for some good stories, and she will tell you about the black mamba she found in her tent.

Dspite the difficult living conditions and the difference in skin colors, Sarah said she never felt out of place in Kenya. She could identify with the Masai tribesmen’s deep appreciation for their arid Kenyan landscape, similar to her feelings for her own Sonoran desert.

“Kenya felt like a second home,” she said.

She even found a Masai “father,” who adopted her and is arranging her dowry.

“He told me, ‘I’ve met many Americans before, but you’re the only one who reminds me of a Masai girl, so you’re my Masai daughter.”

While in Kenya, Sarah conducted interviews and research into the impact of land privatization on the Masai communal lifestyle. At the end of her study program, she traveled to Nairobi to work for the Kenyan environmentalist she had met through her parent’s nonprofit organization. Sarah plans to return to Kenya as part of her graduate program of study. She will focus her master’s thesis research on optimal property rights arrangements that provide for communal management and individual security.

Now that she is back in Tucson for her senior year, Sarah remains committed to two other activities that she has been involved in since her freshman year–both activities stemming from her desire to bridge divides.

The first activity is her research with Professor Dean Lueck of the UA College of Agriculture and College of Law. Her research focuses on conservation easements (restrictions on development in order to maintain the natural landscape). It is an issue close to her heart, as is the scholarship mentoring program at Cholla High School that she co-founded with Keren G. Raz and Leslie Harris at UA.

Sarah saw parallels between her high school life in Douglas and the student environment at Cholla, a predominantly Hispanic, low-income high school in Tucson where only 20 percent of the student population matriculated to college.

“Coming from Douglas, I had a lot of friends who could have gone farther, but the school and familial expectations were so low, they never did,” she said. “I felt lucky to have received so much support, and I wanted to show other people the opportunities that existed.”

Sarah’s favorite moment with the program came at the beginning of this year. While on campus before school started, she ran into three of the program’s students who had just graduated from Cholla. They had originally considered attending community colleges, but instead enrolled at UA on full rides.

Two of the girls had been Sarah’s mentees. For one of them, Sarah said, college had seemed unattainable at first.

“Seeing her so excited about starting college made it all come together,” she said.