“Someone to Admire and Emulate”

Rueda retires after 30-year career at USC Rossier

By Matthew C. Stevens

Robert Rueda (center) with the friends and colleagues who spoke at his retirement reception: Professor Emeritus Myron Dembo, Professor Harry O’Neil, Dean Karen Symms Gallagher and Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana PhD ’95. Photo by Brian Morri/211 Photography.

Robert Rueda (center) with the friends and colleagues who spoke at his retirement reception: Professor Emeritus Myron Dembo, Professor Harry O’Neil, Dean Karen Symms Gallagher and Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana PhD ’95. Photo by Brian Morri/211 Photography.

Robert Rueda remembers the moment he first considered pursuing a PhD in education. He was wrapping up a master’s degree in social work at USC in 1974 and had a spare moment on his hands, so he accompanied his mother to a presentation on special education at the Boyle Heights school of one of his eight younger siblings.

Rueda has one brother with Down’s Syndrome and another who is deaf, and he was slowly charting a career path that would address ways to improve the lives of children like his brothers as well as the parents who expected—and deserved—so much more from the education system.

There he was, a 24-year-old graduate student among a dozen moms in the middle of the day, losing himself in a talk by UCLA Educational Psychology Professor Jack Share. Afterward, Rueda introduced himself to the speaker, who was impressed enough to encourage Rueda to pursue a PhD. Rueda went to earn his doctorate from UCLA in 1979.

On Feb. 18, at the retirement reception held in his own honor, Rueda—now the Stephen H. Crocker Professor Emeritus of Education—acknowledged the debt he owed to Share, who died in November at the age of 87. In attendance were Share’s widow, Armony, and son, Jeff.

Dr. Rueda with his family. Photo by Brian Morri/211 Photography.

Dr. Rueda with his family. Photo by Brian Morri/211 Photography.

A Gentleman and a Scholar

Rueda’s professional accomplishments are many: Prolific author of articles on sociocultural factors in learning and motivation; architect of Rossier’s practitioner-focused EdD program; inaugural recipient of USC Rossier’s annual award for mentorship of faculty; countless leadership roles, culminating in his service as associate dean for research and faculty affairs; fellow of the American Psychological Association and of the American Educational Research Association. In 2013, he became the first Rossier professor elected to the National Academy of Education.

“Professor Rueda taught me how to think, how to write, how to question and how to research—skills that have been very useful to me throughout my career. He pushed me to strive to be better than I ever envisioned myself to be.”

—Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana PhD ’95

Colleague Harry O’Neil set Rueda’s milestones in their proper context, noting the select company he was keeping at the height of his accomplishments: “The National Academy is a group of fewer than 200,” he noted, “and that’s from a profession of more than 26,000.”

Rarer still are the intangible qualities that further distinguish Rueda in the minds of his closest friends and colleagues. Myron Dembo, who preceded Rueda as Rossier’s Crocker Chair, called his friend a gentleman and a scholar, marveling especially at Rueda’s unassuming nature. “The dictionary defines unassuming as ‘modest, lacking in arrogance, pleasant or polite,’” he explained. “Is there any better term to describe him?”

Perhaps just one, added Dembo: “The same language that brought us the word chutzpah also gave us the term mensch, which means ‘someone to admire and emulate.’”

Robert Rueda, mensch and scholar.

Impact on Students

And then there are the countless students touched by Rueda. Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana PhD ’95 has compiled a CV to rival her former dissertation chair: award-winning superintendent, director of education and workforce development in the mayor’s office, U.S. assistant secretary of education.

She owes much to her mentor.

“Professor Rueda taught me how to think, how to write, how to question and how to research—skills that have been very useful to me throughout my career,” she said. “He pushed me to strive to be better than I ever envisioned myself to be.”

Rueda’s dedication to his students was apparent to Meléndez when he taught a class the day after the birth of his daughter, Vanessa. Even more memorable was the day Rueda introduced Meléndez to her future husband (Vanessa was the flower girl).

Meléndez’s stories were proof of Dr. Dembo’s conclusion: “I believe we have all benefitted as much from his humanity as his scholarship.”

“Professor, as you begin a new chapter in your life,” said Meléndez from the podium at the reception, “please know that you have impacted hundreds and hundreds of students—many in academia and many in school systems across the country and across the globe. You have positively impacted the lives of the many students that you dedicated your career to serve—language minority students, minority students, students with special needs.”

You can view more photos from the reception on USC Rossier’s Flckr site.