Student Ruth Cardenas, a voice for others, is named Upstander Award recipient at Iowa State University

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Ruth Cardenas has been selected as the recipient of the 2013 Engel Family Upstander Award for Courage and Leadership award.

Ruth Cardenas, an Iowa State University senior majoring in child, adult and family services, has received the Engel Family Upstander Award for Courage and Leadership for 2013.

Sponsored by ISU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Engel Family Upstander Award recognizes individuals who choose to take a positive stand on an issue of diversity and tolerance – often in difficult circumstances – and act on behalf of others.

The award is inspired by the Upstander Awards by Facing History and Ourselves, a Massachusetts-based educational nonprofit organization. It is named for the family of Iowa State alumna Debra J. Engel. She earned a psychology degree in 1973 and a master’s degree in industrial relations in 1976.

Cardenas will receive $1,000.

“I was so surprised that I started crying when I heard I had won,” Cardenas said. “I feel very blessed that I was chosen.”

One of her nominators called Cardenas a “professional and dedicated student, a diligent learner and a quality peer.” Her courage to speak up against racial, cultural and ethical injustice comes naturally – she has done so in class and on campus – and it earned her the Upstander Award.

“There have been things that have happened at ISU that I didn’t agree with, and I stood up for those things,” she said.

Cardenas isn’t afraid of the possible consequences of standing up for what she believes in. She has pointed out to two of her professors that they have said unintentionally offensive things towards a specific race or culture, and has written political leaders after they’ve made insensitive comments about multicultural students. However, she said her courage to speak up hasn’t always been easy.

Cardenas’ parents immigrated to the United States before her birth. She was born in California and raised in Osceola, and has been interpreting for her parents since a young age. Neither of her parents earned an education past elementary school. Growing up, she saw things happen to her parents and herself that she thought were wrong, but didn’t say anything about it. In college, she changed her attitude.

“Now, I know I have to speak up,” she said. “I saw my parents struggle, and I know what it’s like to struggle, so I want to be a voice for those who can’t or won’t stand up for what is right.”

One of her nominators spoke of her leadership for others, calling her “someone who understands the importance of serving others when in positions of leadership.” Cardenas said the most important quality of a great leader is empowerment of others.

“Being a leader is taking responsibility so that others can empower themselves,” she said. “If you can be an example of empowerment, they’ll be inspired to put in the work it takes so they can be leaders themselves. Leadership is the mark you’ve left on someone after you’ve left your leadership role.”

Cardenas said her parents – especially her mom – have been big influences in her life. “They always encouraged me to follow my dreams, get involved and get an education,” she said. “Even when I got to a certain point and my mom couldn’t help me with schoolwork anymore, she still empowered me to do my best.”

After graduating in May, Cardenas will begin the Ph.D. program in human development and family studies at the University of Missouri and will be on track to become a professor.

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About Liberal Arts and Sciences The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is a world-class learning and research community. Iowa State’s most academically diverse college, LAS educates students to become global citizens, providing rigorous academic programs in the sciences, humanities and social sciences within a supportive personalized learning environment. College faculty design new materials, unravel biological structures, care for the environment, and explore social and behavioral issues. From fundamental research to technology transfer and artistic expression, the college supports people in Iowa and around the world.

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Contact: Jess Knight, Liberal Arts & Sciences Communication, (515) 294-9906,