When religious studies major Ashley Ruttenberg was 17, a Muslim student enrolled at her high school in her hometown in Pennsylvania. This was the first Muslim person many in the school had ever met. She wore a hijab. It was right after 9/11.
Ruttenberg realized some of her high school classmates had fallen prey to Islamophobia.
“The [Muslim] student was obviously afraid, and I felt a tremendous need to protect her simply by sitting next to her and becoming her friend. I imagined how scary it must have been for her [to come to school], to feel that she must have been targeted,” Ruttenberg recalls. “My heart just completely went out to her.”
This moment laid the foundation for what Ruttenberg now sees as her calling – simply put, to work toward world peace.
“Discrimination isn’t something that’s inherent to people,” Ruttenberg says. “It’s taught.”
With the goal of championing equal rights and advocating for religious freedom, Ruttenberg enrolled in the certificate in the study of spirituality and is currently earning her FIU Global Learning medallion. She is also part of the board of directors of Interfaith Action Group – a nonprofit dedicated to creating peace between diverse faiths within the community.
In the spring of 2019, Ruttenberg submitted an entry for the Office of Global Learning Initiative’s Transformation Contest for a chance to win a trip to Washington D.C. and learn about employers and organizations that would allow her to make a positive difference in the world.
As part of her application, Ruttenberg submitted a poem she wrote about the moment when she met her first Muslim friend.
“She was the only one veiled / Her eyes were timid pools…” Ruttenberg recounts the moment when the Muslim student walked into the classroom – emphasizing the community’s lack of familiarity with the culture by referring to the hijab as a veil.
“The place by her side was free,” Ruttenberg says in her poem. “To the veiled, there shall be no hatred / From the unveiled, a silent shield.”
With this poem, Ruttenberg earned her spot as one of the four winners of the Transformation Contest.
Along with communications arts major Melanie Rodriguez; art major Sabrina Diaz; and journalism major Alejandra Marquez Janse, Ruttenberg experienced a three-day trip in D.C., learning about the opportunities the city has to offer scholars and activists.
The students visited organizations ranging from the World Bank and the Peace Corps to the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the U.S. Department of State. They also visited FIU in DC and met representatives from organizations such as FEMA and the Rangel Fellowship there.
Getting to meet representatives from various organizations and learning from them was a highlight of the trip, Ruttenberg says.
“We met incredibly intelligent, passionate people,” she says. “They want to save the world, too. What I learned talking to these people is that they really care. It was very encouraging and gave me hope knowing that there are people there representing things I believe in.”
The trip also helped Ruttenberg put her job search into perspective. Ruttenberg was admittedly preoccupied with discovering which career path would help her impact society the most. But while learning about different organizations in D.C., she discovered something that changed her philosophy.
“There isn’t necessarily one thing that makes the most impact,” she says. “Non-profits and think tanks influence policy. And the government makes the policy. The trip made me realize how everything works together to create change. To be a part of that change, I just need to find the right one [organization] for me.”
In the end, Ruttenberg says, the trip proved the beginning of her lifelong dream to lead positive change.
“There was this moment when all four of us [students] were having dinner one night, and we were talking about cultural awareness and all kinds of things. And I thought – my dream is coming true. I’m in D.C., and I’m having this conversation about something that I’m really passionate about.”