For most people, seeing a movie does not hold much significance beyond the purpose of entertainment or to have something to do. For Natalie Ruiz, however, going to the movies with her family while growing up in Puerto Rico was something she looked forward to not only for the quality family time but also, for the powerful affect the movies had on her.
“The feeling I would get coming out of the movie theater would just be pure amazement,” Ruiz says. “I wanted to learn more about how a movie was made and would spend a couple of hours after still wondering how they did that. I realized that wasn’t a normal feeling for everyone.”
That feeling, though not normal for everyone, is what would eventually guide Ruiz’s future and help shape her current career goals.
Paving Her Own Path
Ruiz is a senior in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications studying film and the passion she felt for film as a kid still remains strong to this day. Ruiz’s passion does not stop at film though and she is also working towards earning a double major in biology.
While the two majors seemingly don’t go together, Ruiz is blending her love for both film and science in a way that no Penn Stater has done before.
“I get to explore all parts of my brain with the film and bio majors,” Ruiz says. “When I feel very artsy or creative I can express that in film but with the more nerdy, academic side of me, I can challenge myself and the way I think through bio.”
Balancing the two majors can be difficult, especially considering how starkly different they are in nature — one requires a lot of creativity while another relies on science, facts and evidence. Ruiz says she has no problem constantly shifting the way she thinks on a daily basis and transitioning her mindset for each class though.
“I remember having physiology class last year and having documentary right after,” Ruiz says. “It was two different kinds of adrenaline and learning for me. Physiology was more like finally answering all of the questions I have about the body and documentary was ‘How do you show that story and how do you keep it authentic and real?’ Those two aspects are key in each major for me.”
The decision to tackle both majors wasn’t an easy one, however, and it was something Ruiz grappled with for a few years. In retrospect, she says she would have always wondered “what if” had she went to med school and only pursued bio or vice versa.
“I’m also excited to get those two degrees and be able to say no one else has done this before,” Ruiz says. “It’s like showing myself and others that you can do it.”
Looking to the Future
After college, Ruiz hopes to continue pursuing both passions by making documentaries similar to those produced by National Geographic, Smithsonian and Discovery Channel.
“My ultimate goal is to do what I would do if I were researcher or scientist, but show it through a film or a video rather than have it written down so that only the scientists can see,” Ruiz says. “I would want everyone to see it so we can get even more insights on the problem or inspire other students to either do more research or do more film projects.”
In fact, Ruiz has already jump started this goal with an internship at the Smithsonian Channel this past summer, an experience that she says served as a glimpse of hope and made her realize that doing exactly what she’s always wanted to do is possible.
In addition to her two passions, her heritage has been a driving force in cultivating her career and ambitions.
Ruiz first moved to the United States when she came to Penn State, and adjusting to both college and a new culture was no easy task. Not only recognizing but embracing her differences was one thing that helped with the transition though, she says.
“When I was in Puerto Rico I didn’t even consider myself as a minority, I was just Puerto Rican,” Ruiz says. “But coming here, I realized how much my culture has impacted me.”
One of her first documentary films that she produced here at Penn State was a testament to that and centered on the hurricane that hit Puerto Rico in 2017 — Hurricane Maria. The doc now has over 500 views on YouTube and she says producing it actually helped her cope with having to watch the devastation her native country was experiencing while being so far from home.
“It helped whoever I was interviewing and it helped me realize that Hurricane Maria wasn’t the end of the world and that what makes us, ‘Us’ is that we don’t give up,” says Ruiz. “We get up and try again. So, that just made me even more proud of where I come from.”
She has continued to use the pride she has for her heritage to fuel her in all aspects of her life and aims to also share it with those around her.
“I feel like the things that make me different as Puerto Rican, some people here find interesting, which is great for me because I just want to share more of what I’ve lived through and where my home is,” Ruiz says.
Ruiz’s heritage has also made her passionate about advocating for more minority representation in the film and entertainment industries. She spoke with VALLEY at length about both the progress the entertainment industry has made thus far when it comes to inclusion and diversity as well as the progress she would still like to see.
“I remember growing up there was one episode of ‘The Suite Life of Zack and Cody’ where this one kid said, ‘I’m not Mexican, I’m Puerto Rican!’ and that was the first time I heard ‘Puerto Rican’ on Disney Channel,” Ruiz says. “I believe in the whole idea of including more minorities because you never know who is going to be the next person to bring in a new technology or introduce a new aspect of film.”
A Female Force to Be Reckoned With
Feminism is another important value for Ruiz. As a female filmmaker herself, she is grateful to see more equality for women in the entertainment industry in light of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. More and more women filmmakers are also getting the recognition they deserve in what was once a male dominated industry — a fact that excites and inspires Ruiz though she feels there is still progress to be made.
“I feel lucky that [female filmmakers] have been paving the way. It’s still not going to be easy, but it’s going to be easier for me to put my stuff out there and get it recognized by a lot of people thanks to them,” Ruiz says.
At the Smithsonian, both of Ruiz’s internship supervisors were women and a majority of the staff were women. Ruiz says this showed her firsthand that progress is possible and that the industry is moving in the right direction.
“For me, I’d still like to see more women CEOs or directors in the entertainment industry. Having more women represented in the industry is making it more complete and I feel like the audience, whether they know a woman was involved or not, are going to feel it,” Ruiz says.
Graduating with Gratitude
She credits Penn State for helping her find her cinematic style and achieve her dreams of dual majoring.
Though she’s always known she was interested in film, her coursework and professors are how she discovered that she is more drawn to documentary than any other narrative.
“I realized that one of the best stories for me are real stories. You don’t have to invent anything, you just have to find those stories and capture the human emotion in them,” Ruiz says.
And while most people think she’s crazy for pursuing such different majors, her advisors and professors were supportive and believed she could do it.
To students whose hearts are also pulled in opposite directions, she encourages taking the jump.
“For anyone that’s thinking about double majors or film, my advice is: if it’s been in your mind for this long, it means something,” Ruiz suggests. “Just do it or try. You will never know if you can actually do it unless you try and you will regret it for the rest of your life.”