Student Spotlight

Pedro Rugamas: Brandman grad’s criminal justice degree leads to law school

September 28, 2018

Pedro Rugamas’ road to academic success was never easy. He fled El Salvador as a young teen at the height of that country’s revolution, dropping out of school in the process. The possibility of any education seemed out of reach.

Pedro Rugamas
Pedro Rugamas overcame dropping out of school to earn a bachelor's degree and complete law school.

“I always wanted to go to school, but I dropped out because I thought I had to work to help my family. That desire (to go to school) moved from the front of my head to the back but never left,” Rugamas said.

When he was in his mid-30s and raising a family, he started to think seriously about school again. He took a placement test that qualified him for a GED but decided what he wanted was a high school diploma. Once he had that, he thought about community college, but the classes didn’t fit his work schedule. He spent a “disastrous” year at the University of Phoenix and nearly gave up.

Then a lawyer friend suggested Brandman (then known as Chapman University College). A visit to the Antelope Valley campus introduced him first to Norma Contreras and then Jane Uhazy and Carol Price-Aliano. “Between those three, they get you in school and get you out of there,” Rugamas said with a broad smile.

They urged him to take CLEP tests to qualify for the required 12 units needed to start a bachelor’s program. That allowed him to begin working toward a B.A. in Criminal Justice in January 2006, finishing his degree by 2011.

None of that was as easy as it might sound. “You have to be humble. If you don’t like people laughing at you, making fun of your accent – you have to put up with some stuff don’t like. You can’t have a thin skin,” Rugamas said of his later-in-life high school experience.

Brandman, on the other hand, helped him sort through his core values and then practice them. “Everything of value has a cost, so it’s not easy,” he said. He discovered “the only limitations are the ones you impose on yourself.”

Rugamas chose criminal justice because he had already had an interest in going to law school and thought that degree best matched his goals.

Pedro and Norma
Pedro Rugmas and Norma Contreras, Antelope Valley campus director, at commencement in May 2011.

“I learned a lot about police, courts and corrections,” he said. Brandman professors helped him get a broader perspective, particularly on immigration. “It gave me more sympathy, gave me more perspective, on other groups.” He learned, for instance, that Asian immigrants faced discrimination that matched what he met as a first-generation immigrant.

More than anything, he liked the classes that looked at the philosophical underpinnings of criminal justice. That remains a key interest now that he’s completed a law degree at Trinity Law School in Santa Ana.

That university’s emphasis on Christian values and the law matches his focus. “I am interested in the moral aspect of the law,” Rugamas said. “We need something beyond this reality.”

Now he’s waiting to hear whether he passed the California Bar Exam, considered one of the most difficult in the nation. Ultimately, he would like to use his law degree to work for the public, preferably through a nonprofit organization.

As for anyone considering going to school, no matter what age, Rugamas has this advice: “It’s a matter of starting. You start, and things look different.”

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