Truman Scholar Rick Puig is out to make the nation a better place
Rick Puig, a senior political-science major, is Mizzou's 14th Truman Scholar. The son of a Cuban immigrant, Puig plans to pursue a career in public service.
Eliseo Ricardo Puig, better known as Rick, rested on his Las Vegas hotel bed during spring break. He was relaxing after a months-long process of applying for a prestigious Truman Scholarship, which he was convinced he wouldn’t receive. Then Puig’s cell phone rang. It was a Columbia, Mo., number he didn’t recognize, and his mom and sister, with him on the trip, knew something was up. On the line was Jim Spain, vice provost for undergraduate studies at MU. Puig doesn’t remember much of the phone call outside of learning he’d been named a Truman Scholar. The restful family vacation instantly became a celebration.
Competition for the 60 scholarships the Truman Foundation awards each year is fierce, and it starts near the beginning of each fall semester. Puig initially was encouraged to apply by MU Fellowship Office Coordinator and former Missouri state Rep. Vicky Riback Wilson. Wilson suggested the Truman Scholarship to Puig because of his academic achievements and high level of activity on campus.
“The more we got to know Rick, the more we knew he had the attributes to be an outstanding candidate,” Wilson says. “As I talked to him about his personal goals and beliefs, I was impressed by his strong commitment to making sure everyone in our society became involved, not just in government but in the political process of being an engaged citizen.”
Once he’d decided to apply, Puig went through the labor-intensive process of assembling an application, a résumé, several letters of recommendation and a polished proposal that detailed his future plans. The interview to be selected as Mizzou’s representative was Nov. 5, a day after the national election and one Puig called “one of the most grueling days of my life.”
Selected as MU’s applicant, Puig attacked the national application process with a renewed intensity. With Wilson, he began to refine and perfect all of his materials. By spring he’d learned he was a finalist. That’s when he faced a “hostile interview” in front of a regional review panel, which consisted of former Truman Scholars, a member of the Truman Foundation and prominent public servants.
“They basically grill you and try to pick apart your ideology, your application, your policy proposal,” Puig says. “But at the end of the day, the process is designed to push you to the limit and see if you can effectively communicate what it is … to be a prospective public servant.”
Puig’s work at Mizzou aided him in successfully navigating the process. When he came to Columbia from Kansas City in 2006, it was at the height of the midterm election cycle. He immediately got involved in Claire McCaskill’s successful campaign for the U.S. Senate and worked to take leadership roles in the Mizzou College Democrats, where he served as political director and treasurer.
In 2007 Puig was elected president of the Young Democrats of Missouri, an organization that oversees high school,college and professional Young Democrats programs in the state. In 2008, he was the youngest person on the Rules Committee at the Democratic National Convention. Because of that work, Puig was selected as the youngest member of Gov. Jay Nixon’s transition advisory board, where he helped recruit and identify new employees for the new administration.
“As a young person, there are very few fields you can get involved in that allow the degree of control and involvement politics does,” Puig says. “Trying to imagine my life the last three years without the political process is extremely difficult for me. It’s been formative not only in the way that I think but in the way I work.”
Puig has been nearly as active outside of politics. He started a business called Public Forum Zone, LLC his freshman year to provide educational resources such as topic analysis and briefs to high-school debaters. The business was a success and had has grown into a national company that provides resources to high-schoolers in nearly every state.
Additionally, Puig has mentored immigrant children in the community and organized what Wilson calls an “extremely successful” non-partisan voter registration campaign among students. All of his work has been guided by an overriding philosophy.
“Those activities are influenced, like everything else, by what you learn and the work ethic you develop working in politics,” Puig says. “My partisan life, my personal life, my academic life and my work life are all integrated; the effect of my political life and work on my other work has been profound.”
My grandparents risked everything they had on a bet that this country could be great. What I do is an attempt to validate the risk they took because I do believe very strongly in the promise of this country.
Puig’s motivation for becoming so involved in public service isn’t difficult to discern. One of the central narratives of his Truman Scholarship application — as well as his life — is his family’s story.
Half a century ago, Puig’s Cuban grandmother, a lawyer, and grandfather, a doctor, became disillusioned with Fidel Castro’s revolution when they saw people’s civil liberties being eroded and the country’s economy taking a nosedive. They wanted their children to experience a better life, but because their jobs were deemed necessary to the revolution, they were unable to leave the country themselves. Just 12 years old, Puig’s father, Ricardo, was sent by plane with his sister to their uncle Arturo’s two-room house in Key West, Fla.
They were without their parents for months, but eventually Puig’s grandmother was allowed to leave. His grandfather, Eliseo, couldn’t get clearance, though.
One day, one of Eliseo’s patients announced his family was leaving Cuba and had a spot on their fishing boat. Knowing he would never get clearance from the government, Eliseo agreed to go. Packing a single suitcase with family photos, his medical degrees, some books and cash, he climbed into a car in the middle of the night, leaving his comfortable and successful life behind.
From a shore town on the north side of the island, they traveled until making it to the Bahamas, a British colony at the time. Eliseo was the only one who knew enough English to communicate with the British authorities. They radioed the U.S. Coast Guard, who took the group of Cubans to the U.S. for processing. Days later, Eliseo was finally reunited with his family.
“I work in public service and have gotten involved the way that I have for one fundamental reason,” Puig says. “It’s because my grandparents risked everything they had on a bet that this country could be great. What I do is an attempt to validate the risk they took because I do believe very strongly in the promise of this country and what it meant to my family.”
Puig, MU’s 14th Truman Scholar, begins his senior year this fall with more decisions to make and applications to fill out. His plans may include pursuing a master’s degree in public administration, a law degree or some combination of the two. The financial support Truman Scholars receive — $30,000 for graduate education — will ease the burden of paying for it. But the money is not what most recipients say is the most valuable part of the honor.
“It’s not just that you get the award; you get the opportunity to become part of a group of people who have earned tremendous respect in their fields and as a group,” Wilson says. “They’ve already had a week in Kansas City, where it’s entirely possible that one of the people with whom Rick spent the week, perhaps Rick himself, will become a major contributor to national issues, the foundation for service or non-profit activities, a political leader or President of the United States.”
Puig said he sees himself working in public service down the road, but he’s not sure in which direction he’ll go. He could follow his strong interest in first-generation Americans and their cultural assimilation. Or maybe he’ll become involved in immigration-law reform with a non-profit or government agency. Regardless, Puig expects his experience as a Truman Scholar to aid him in achieving his goals.
“If there’s one thing this process has taught me, it’s that there are unbelievably well-qualified young people doing incredible things in every state in the country,” Puig says. “I look forward to getting to work with all of the people I’ve met because, if history’s any indicator, these people will go on to do amazing things.”