profile of girl
Esmeralda Cruz 

Paying It Forward

Investments often take many years to pay dividends. For Purdue Extension, a small investment made in one young woman from Clinton County is yielding significant returns for an entire community.

But according to Esmeralda Cruz, she’s the beneficiary. “I’m a proud product of Purdue Extension,” she says. “They believed in my abilities, helped me develop skills and offered me tremendous opportunities.”

Cruz has come a long way since she and her family moved from a village in Mexico to a new country with a new language. “I was seven years old when we came to Frankfort,” she says. “There were few Hispanics here, and no one in my family spoke the language. As I learned English, I would help translate for people at schools and in the hospital.”

In 2003, Cruz was selected for Learning to Lead, an Extension initiative to develop the leadership potential of promising high-school sophomores in Clinton County. The program’s focus on civic responsibility and volunteerism was a perfect match for Cruz, who was already engaged in the community.

After completing the program, she was a dedicated alumna, speaking to students and local leaders about ways young people could help improve the community. After one such presentation, Cruz was introduced to then-Purdue President Martin Jischke, who was so impressed that he offered her a four-year scholarship that night.

“No one in my family had gone to college,” Cruz says. “My mom completed third grade, and my dad only finished sixth grade. He wanted to go to school, but he needed to work to help his family. He told me he’d do whatever he needed to so that I could go to college.”

With her Purdue diploma in hand, Cruz returned to Frankfort to work in the Purdue Extension office that first noticed her leadership potential. As an Extension program assistant she is responsible for three programs that provide services for young mothers and families, and for tutoring more than 250 area students.

“Working with youth and families is my passion,” Cruz says. “Building relationships and building trust is so important to helping others. I want to be someone who motivates others and makes a difference in my community.”

Clinton County Extension Director Susan Tharp, who mentored Cruz and introduced her to Jischke, saw the young woman’s promise early on. “The future of a community depends on young people like Esmeralda, who have the skills and talents to make meaningful contributions.”

What began with Learning to Lead has come full circle for Cruz. “Purdue Extension has changed my life,” she says. And through Extension, she is changing the lives of others in Clinton County, too.

Servant leadership a natural fit for Esmeralda Cruz

For Esmeralda Cruz, helping families in transition is a natural fit. She came to Frankfort, Ind., from Mexico with her family nearly 20 years ago, so adjustment is a journey she knows well. Cruz relies on that experience in her work as a program assistant for Purdue Extension.

"When you are helping families, it's so important to build trust by listening, assessing needs, finding resources so they can help themselves and then providing support," says Cruz, who credits others for doing that for her when she was growing up in Frankfort.

Shelbi Fortner, a 2001 Purdue graduate, was one of those people. A science teacher at Frankfort High School at the time, Fortner recognized Cruz's potential immediately. Fortner reached out to provide support as Cruz explored leadership opportunities and navigated the college search process. Fortner even took Cruz to new student orientation at Purdue.

"She took on the mom role for me," says Cruz, explaining that Fortner helped her get answers to her questions and to choose her schedule.

“The time we spent together allowed me to recognize specific ways that I could help her and allowed her to know that I was genuinely happy to help her succeed," Fortner says.

Cruz graduated from Purdue in 2010 with a double major in political science and psychology. She is currently enrolled as a graduate student at Purdue and plans to pursue a degree in the College of Agriculture's Youth Development and Agricultural Education program.

Cruz says Susan Tharp, county executive director for Purdue Extension-Clinton County, is another person who played an important part in her success as a student and continues to be today as a mentor. Tharp is happy to have Cruz back in Clinton County.

"The future of a community depends on young people like Esmeralda," Tharp says. "She understands the impact that Extension has on the lives of individuals and on community development. She has the passion, skills and abilities to be a servant leader and effective community educator.

"You have to be willing to listen and to look for new ways to solve problems," says Cruz, who credits Fortner and Tharp for doing just that for the Frankfort community.​