Custom Class: post-landing-hero

Rowland Hall alumnus Jeff Norris lives his purpose treating and advocating for underserved populations as the medical director of Father Joe’s Villages in San Diego When Jeff Norris ’03 applied to medical school, the admissions office at the University of Utah called him in for a rare second interview. He had submitted a personal statement focused on the connection between medicine, public health, and social justice, and that intersectional approach raised some eyebrows.
 
Admissions officers asked Jeff if he was sure he wanted to go to medical school, and not study public health or social work. But he assured them: he knew he wanted to be a clinician who worked with, and advocated for, underserved populations.

Jeff credited Rowland Hall with launching his career trajectory. In high school, under the mentorship of then-faculty member Liz Paige, he volunteered with Amnesty International and prepared and served food at local youth groups. The positive experience of serving others and making an impact—and relevant content in history and psychology courses—got the wheels turning in Jeff’s brain: “I started reflecting on my role in the world and how I could try to do something to make a difference for others. What is my purpose for being here?”

Jeff's self-described “deliberate and diligent” approach to his career—melding his interests in science and social justice, being motivated by a desire to give back to the world—has been nothing short of a success.

The service and activism Jeff began at Rowland Hall carried through his years as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as a med student at the University of Utah, and as a family medicine resident at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. His self-described “deliberate and diligent” approach to his career—melding his interests in science and social justice, being motivated by a desire to give back to the world—has been nothing short of a success: in 2016, Jeff became the medical director of Father Joe’s Villages, an award-winning nonprofit that provides integrated services to people experiencing homelessness in San Diego.
 
Jeff’s day-to-day work requires a breadth of skill, knowledge, and tenacity: he estimates he spends about 40 percent of his time treating patients and the other 60 percent engaged in clinic administration, fundraising, and advocacy—including ensuring that state and federal legislation supports nonprofits like his. He serves on a number of boards, including a large network of clinics with over 100,000 patients in the San Diego area. For Jeff, it’s about more than staying connected and representing the interests of Father Joe’s Villages. “It is being present in the community to advocate for the needs of not just those experiencing homelessness, but underserved populations more broadly.”


At the clinic he leads—which serves walk-ins along with residents of Father Joe’s Villages and people receiving assistance from other local agencies—Jeff focuses on decreasing the barriers his patients face in getting adequate care, and staying on the cutting edge of what they need in order to improve their health. “The challenges our patients face are pretty unique, compared to most patient populations,” he said. “Their lives are very chaotic, and they have a lot going on medically, psychiatrically, behaviorally, socially…in all senses.” A significant portion of his time is spent managing programs to deliver medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder (OUD)—drugs such as buprenorphine (suboxone) or naltrexone—and for alcohol abuse. 

At the clinic he leads, Jeff focuses on decreasing the barriers his patients face in getting adequate care, and staying on the cutting edge of what they need in order to improve their health.

Among the most recent and cutting-edge programs Jeff and his team at Father Joe’s Villages are running is the Street Health Program, which launched this spring and is already impacting lives for the better. As the name suggests, the initiative involves going out into the streets and providing healthcare directly to people experiencing homelessness. So far, they’ve reached a number of people who’ve avoided or been underserved by traditional healthcare. One example: a man who had been using heroin for 30 years and had never before been interested in treatment. Pending a grant, the street health team hopes to treat patients with OUD at the first point of contact. In the meantime, they wrote a prescription for this particular patient because, as Jeff said, “it was the right thing to do.”
 
One of the long-term goals of the Street Health Program is to develop rapport with individuals so that they will visit the clinic for treatment. Additionally, the launch has created quite a buzz throughout San Diego, so Jeff hopes other clinics and treatment centers will consider similar programs (which do already exist in other large metropolitan areas like New York and San Francisco). “It can’t just be us,” he said. “There are enough folks experiencing homelessness that we certainly cannot meet the need unilaterally.”
 
Jeff is rightly proud of his advocacy work and the impact his clinic makes on a daily basis, and he speaks passionately of the need for everyone to recognize the homelessness crisis—not just in San Diego, but also in Salt Lake City and urban areas throughout the country. While rising housing costs and relatively stagnant wages are the two primary drivers of the problem, Jeff doesn’t discount the power of the individual to make a difference, whether through volunteering, donating goods, or elevating the dialogue to fight the stigma against those experiencing homelessness.
 
When he’s not working, Jeff stays active outdoors, taking advantage of all that San Diego’s famously temperate climate has to offer. He also prioritizes time with his family: two-year-old daughter Alex keeps Jeff and wife Sonia Ponce—a practicing cardiologist—quite busy.
Jeff always treated those he served with dignity and compassion. It is wonderful to see him intently living his purpose, in the intersection of bettering human relationships as a way to improve healthcare. —Ryan Hoglund, director of ethical education

Rowland Hall’s Director of Ethical Education Ryan Hoglund is not at all surprised that Jeff is making a difference in the lives of others. He recalled how, as a high school student, Jeff was always highly engaged and motivated to serve, often being the last to leave a volunteer event. “Jeff always treated those he served with dignity and compassion,” Ryan said. “It is wonderful to see him intently living his purpose, in the intersection of bettering human relationships as a way to improve healthcare.”

Just as Jeff credited Rowland Hall for sparking his interest in a life of service to others, Mr. Hoglund credited Jeff for setting an example of genuine student leadership at the school. And, to the student leaders today, Jeff sent these words of encouragement: “Figure out what gives you energy and makes you feel like you're contributing to the world in some positive way, then grab that bull by the horns and don’t let go of it. That’s where you're going to be able to make a difference, to be satisfied with who you are and what you're doing in this world.”


All photos courtesy of Father Joe's Villages.

Alumni

At the Intersection of Homelessness, Healthcare, and Humanity

Rowland Hall alumnus Jeff Norris lives his purpose treating and advocating for underserved populations as the medical director of Father Joe’s Villages in San Diego When Jeff Norris ’03 applied to medical school, the admissions office at the University of Utah called him in for a rare second interview. He had submitted a personal statement focused on the connection between medicine, public health, and social justice, and that intersectional approach raised some eyebrows.
 
Admissions officers asked Jeff if he was sure he wanted to go to medical school, and not study public health or social work. But he assured them: he knew he wanted to be a clinician who worked with, and advocated for, underserved populations.

Jeff credited Rowland Hall with launching his career trajectory. In high school, under the mentorship of then-faculty member Liz Paige, he volunteered with Amnesty International and prepared and served food at local youth groups. The positive experience of serving others and making an impact—and relevant content in history and psychology courses—got the wheels turning in Jeff’s brain: “I started reflecting on my role in the world and how I could try to do something to make a difference for others. What is my purpose for being here?”

Jeff's self-described “deliberate and diligent” approach to his career—melding his interests in science and social justice, being motivated by a desire to give back to the world—has been nothing short of a success.

The service and activism Jeff began at Rowland Hall carried through his years as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as a med student at the University of Utah, and as a family medicine resident at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. His self-described “deliberate and diligent” approach to his career—melding his interests in science and social justice, being motivated by a desire to give back to the world—has been nothing short of a success: in 2016, Jeff became the medical director of Father Joe’s Villages, an award-winning nonprofit that provides integrated services to people experiencing homelessness in San Diego.
 
Jeff’s day-to-day work requires a breadth of skill, knowledge, and tenacity: he estimates he spends about 40 percent of his time treating patients and the other 60 percent engaged in clinic administration, fundraising, and advocacy—including ensuring that state and federal legislation supports nonprofits like his. He serves on a number of boards, including a large network of clinics with over 100,000 patients in the San Diego area. For Jeff, it’s about more than staying connected and representing the interests of Father Joe’s Villages. “It is being present in the community to advocate for the needs of not just those experiencing homelessness, but underserved populations more broadly.”


At the clinic he leads—which serves walk-ins along with residents of Father Joe’s Villages and people receiving assistance from other local agencies—Jeff focuses on decreasing the barriers his patients face in getting adequate care, and staying on the cutting edge of what they need in order to improve their health. “The challenges our patients face are pretty unique, compared to most patient populations,” he said. “Their lives are very chaotic, and they have a lot going on medically, psychiatrically, behaviorally, socially…in all senses.” A significant portion of his time is spent managing programs to deliver medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder (OUD)—drugs such as buprenorphine (suboxone) or naltrexone—and for alcohol abuse. 

At the clinic he leads, Jeff focuses on decreasing the barriers his patients face in getting adequate care, and staying on the cutting edge of what they need in order to improve their health.

Among the most recent and cutting-edge programs Jeff and his team at Father Joe’s Villages are running is the Street Health Program, which launched this spring and is already impacting lives for the better. As the name suggests, the initiative involves going out into the streets and providing healthcare directly to people experiencing homelessness. So far, they’ve reached a number of people who’ve avoided or been underserved by traditional healthcare. One example: a man who had been using heroin for 30 years and had never before been interested in treatment. Pending a grant, the street health team hopes to treat patients with OUD at the first point of contact. In the meantime, they wrote a prescription for this particular patient because, as Jeff said, “it was the right thing to do.”
 
One of the long-term goals of the Street Health Program is to develop rapport with individuals so that they will visit the clinic for treatment. Additionally, the launch has created quite a buzz throughout San Diego, so Jeff hopes other clinics and treatment centers will consider similar programs (which do already exist in other large metropolitan areas like New York and San Francisco). “It can’t just be us,” he said. “There are enough folks experiencing homelessness that we certainly cannot meet the need unilaterally.”
 
Jeff is rightly proud of his advocacy work and the impact his clinic makes on a daily basis, and he speaks passionately of the need for everyone to recognize the homelessness crisis—not just in San Diego, but also in Salt Lake City and urban areas throughout the country. While rising housing costs and relatively stagnant wages are the two primary drivers of the problem, Jeff doesn’t discount the power of the individual to make a difference, whether through volunteering, donating goods, or elevating the dialogue to fight the stigma against those experiencing homelessness.
 
When he’s not working, Jeff stays active outdoors, taking advantage of all that San Diego’s famously temperate climate has to offer. He also prioritizes time with his family: two-year-old daughter Alex keeps Jeff and wife Sonia Ponce—a practicing cardiologist—quite busy.
Jeff always treated those he served with dignity and compassion. It is wonderful to see him intently living his purpose, in the intersection of bettering human relationships as a way to improve healthcare. —Ryan Hoglund, director of ethical education

Rowland Hall’s Director of Ethical Education Ryan Hoglund is not at all surprised that Jeff is making a difference in the lives of others. He recalled how, as a high school student, Jeff was always highly engaged and motivated to serve, often being the last to leave a volunteer event. “Jeff always treated those he served with dignity and compassion,” Ryan said. “It is wonderful to see him intently living his purpose, in the intersection of bettering human relationships as a way to improve healthcare.”

Just as Jeff credited Rowland Hall for sparking his interest in a life of service to others, Mr. Hoglund credited Jeff for setting an example of genuine student leadership at the school. And, to the student leaders today, Jeff sent these words of encouragement: “Figure out what gives you energy and makes you feel like you're contributing to the world in some positive way, then grab that bull by the horns and don’t let go of it. That’s where you're going to be able to make a difference, to be satisfied with who you are and what you're doing in this world.”


All photos courtesy of Father Joe's Villages.

Alumni

Explore More Alumni Stories

Sara Matsumura playing volleyball.

Haverford College senior Sara Matsumura ’16 added to her impressive list of achievements on September 9, when she was awarded the Centennial Conference’s Player of the Week after being named Most Valuable Player of the Ford Invitational only two days earlier. Then, on September 16, the NCAA announced that Sara was ranked third in Division III in total digs and seventh in service aces.

“I am over-the-moon ecstatic,” Sara said about the start of her senior season.

Despite the recent attention she has personally received, the Haverford volleyball co-captain remained focused on her team. “It is amazing to see all of our hard work coming to fruition and so motivating to see everyone reaching and playing at their full potential,” she said. “I feel a lot of appreciation for the group of girls I get to play with."

I am over-the-moon ecstatic. It is amazing to see all of our hard work coming to fruition and so motivating to see everyone reaching and playing at their full potential.—Sara Matsumura, Class of 2016

Kendra Tomsic, Sara’s former coach and Rowland Hall’s director of athletics, was not surprised to learn of Sara’s focus on teamwork. “Sara never cared about individual stats or accolades—she loved her teammates and celebrated their accomplishments as if they were her own,” she said of Sara’s time playing for the Winged Lions. “Her unmatched work ethic, positive attitude, fiery spirit, enthusiasm, heart, and passion for the game were an inspiration to her teammates and coaches.”
 
Kendra also praised Sara’s athletic prowess. “Sara is undoubtedly one of the most talented volleyball players to come out of our program. Her stats were tops in nearly every category, and she was instrumental to our winning several consecutive region titles,” she said. “I am so very proud and excited, but definitely not surprised, that Sara has continued to excel and has made such an amazing impact on her Haverford College team.”
 
Sara credited Rowland Hall for preparing her for success at the college level, both on the court and in the classroom. “The endless support I received from Rowland Hall’s coaching staff gave me the confidence I needed to gain an I-own-the-court mentality. As a back-row player, that is essential and has definitely been tested when facing strong teams,” she said. “Rowland Hall also prepared me to balance school and volleyball, as academics is our top priority at Haverford too.”
 
These balancing skills, first gained at Rowland Hall and then strengthened at Haverford, are essential to Sara’s success. When she isn’t excelling on the court, the chemistry major is researching microplastics and bioplastics for her senior thesis. After graduation, she plans on taking a gap year to work at an environmentally focused company, then earning a PhD in environmental engineering or chemistry. Armed with an arsenal of skills she has gathered as a student-athlete, we have no doubt she’ll continue to do great things, and we can’t wait to see them.

Update November 12, 2019: Sara was selected for a first-team spot for the 2019 All-Centennial Conference volleyball teams; this is the third consecutive season Sara has been named to an All-Centennial squad. She was also named to the Centennial Conference All-Sportsmanship team for the fourth consecutive season, becoming the first player in program history to earn that distinction four times since the introduction of the plaudit to the conference's postseason awards in 2009. Read the news release.

Update November 14, 2019: Sara was selected to the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Division III All-Mid Atlantic Region team. She is the first Haverford player to garner all-region honors since 2015. Read the news release.

Update November 19, 2019: Sara was named an All-America Honorable Mention. She is the first Haverford player to be included on the list since 2015 and the tenth in program history. Read the news release.

Congratulations, Sara!


Top of page: Sara Matsumura playing in a Haverford College volleyball game. (Photo courtesy David Sinclair)

Alumni

Claire Wang in front of US Capitol
Winged Lions on the Rise—title page graphic featuring six alumni.

Editor's note: this is one of six profiles republished from Rowland Hall's 2018–2019 Annual Report feature story, "Winged Lions on the Rise." Millennial alumni are finding their voices and already shaping their fields and communities—from physics to film, music to medical innovations, and environmental policy to conservation-minded real estate. Learn how Rowland Hall impacted them, and how they’re impacting the world. From left, Jared Ruga ’06, Claire Wang ’15, Phinehas Bynum ’08, Jeanna Tachiki Ryan ’01, Tyler Ruggles ’05, and Sarah Day ’06.


In her daily fight against climate change, Claire Wang’s weapons of choice include her bicycle, travel utensils, and reusable water bottle.

But the 21-year-old’s real arsenal is her character: her empathy, intellect, and contagious optimism that she wields to mobilize peers, negotiate with institutions, and drive environmental progress locally and nationally. Now, Rowland Hall’s first Rhodes Scholar graduates to the global stage.

There’s no choice but to be hopeful. We have a collective obligation to keep working towards a better future. Giving up would be a selfish act.—Claire Wang ’15

In Claire, the daunting problem of climate change finds a formidable opponent: the former nationally ranked Rowland Hall debater loves what she does and refuses to be discouraged. “There’s no choice but to be hopeful,” she said. “We have a collective obligation to keep working towards a better future. Giving up would be a selfish act.”

Claire was always interested in science and environmentalism; after coming to Rowland Hall in seventh grade, relevant curriculum furthered her interest in climate advocacy, while debate turned her into a policy wonk. In high school, she started volunteering for Utah Clean Energy through a school connection. “That was the moment I realized that I love this work and I want to do it for a living,” Claire said. “Rowland Hall was really supportive of that.” As a senior, she co-organized a press conference—held at the McCarthey Campus and covered by local news outlets—advocating against new fees on solar panels. And just before she finished high school, the Sierra Club asked her to help plan a national youth-led movement for renewable energy.

Claire Wang speaks with a broadcast news reporter at a 2015 press conference on solar panels, held at Rowland Hall.

Claire graduated as valedictorian and accepted a full ride to Duke University, where she majored in environmental science and policy. As a freshman, she worked with college administrators to secure Duke’s official support for renewable-energy policy reform. Then, Duke Energy—a large utility company unaffiliated with the university—announced plans to build a natural-gas plant on the university’s campus. It was the first of eight small-scale gas plants planned for the Carolinas. Claire spent two years fighting the campus plant proposal, and the university suspended the plans in spring 2018. Since then, none of the other North Carolina plants have entered the planning process. “Turning the tide early with the first plant ended up being really impactful,” Claire said.

Claire thrived in community campaigns at Duke and beyond—she even won prestigious Truman and Udall Scholarships in recognition of her work—and envisioned a career in national policy. But a 2018 study-abroad program on climate change and the politics of food, water, and energy spurred a shift. She visited a hydroelectric dam in Vietnam, and an ethnic-minority community displaced because of that dam. She also learned about how extreme weather impacts farmers, from drought in Bolivia to hail in Morocco. Now, Claire wants to reduce financing for fossil-fuel infrastructure, especially in developing countries. “We're not going to be able to achieve a livable climate future without cutting those back,” she said.

Eschew the conventional belief that salaries define successful careers. “Instead, focus on the impact you have on the world,” Claire said. “What you do with your life is not just a job—it’s a legacy.”

That global perspective drove Claire to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship—the oldest award for international study, covering graduate school at England’s University of Oxford. When she learned she’d been selected, Claire was elated, but incredulous. “It was a mix of nervousness, excitement, pride, and a general sense of, ‘Wait, did this actually happen?’”

Claire will be at Oxford for two years, starting with a one-year master’s in environmental change and management. She expects to land in policy, perhaps working for the government or an international group. Regardless, she’ll be doing work that’s meaningful to her, and she encourages other young people to follow suit: eschew the conventional belief that salaries define successful careers. “Instead, focus on the impact you have on the world,” she said. “What you do with your life is not just a job—it’s a legacy.”


Top photo: Claire in front of the United States Capitol. Over the summer, Claire interned with the Natural Resources Defense Council as part of the Truman Scholars' Summer Institute.

Alumni

Phinehas Bynum performs in Candide
Winged Lions on the Rise—title page graphic featuring six alumni.

Editor's note: this is one of six profiles republished from Rowland Hall's 2018–2019 Annual Report feature story, "Winged Lions on the Rise." Millennial alumni are finding their voices and already shaping their fields and communities—from physics to film, music to medical innovations, and environmental policy to conservation-minded real estate. Learn how Rowland Hall impacted them, and how they’re impacting the world. From left, Jared Ruga ’06, Claire Wang ’15, Phinehas Bynum ’08, Jeanna Tachiki Ryan ’01, Tyler Ruggles ’05, and Sarah Day ’06.


Phinehas Bynum makes “whizbangs and gizmos” to automate mundane things in his Minneapolis house. A motion sensor on his washing machine messages him when the washer stops. Between loads, he composes and plays music in his DIY home-recording studio. It’s a delightful showcase of his two biggest passions.

Phinehas—Phin, for short—holds a music and computer science degree from St. Olaf College in Minnesota. By day, he works for software company Jamf on a technical-implementation team that teaches and trains clients. But the renaissance man has also been a lifelong singer—performing with the likes of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as a fourth grader, the renowned St. Olaf Choir as a college student, and operas around Minneapolis, including the Minnesota Opera (MNOp), since college.

You can make someone's day better by fixing their computer, or by singing them a song. And both of these involve compassion, creativity, logic, and technique.—Phinehas Bynum ’08

“I was just about born singing,” said Phin, whose parents prophetically gave him a name that means, among other interpretations, mouth of brass. “Every time you say ‘Phinehas’ a trumpet gets its wings,” the alum quipped. Naturally, young Phin also dabbled in reverse engineering. “Mama and Papa stepped on clock springs and screws on the daily because I took everything apart to see how it worked,” he said. “Computer science was an extension of tinkering for me because you could change how something worked just by telling it to change, no take-apart required.” 

Phin has deftly balanced singing and computing, which he said similarly fulfill him. “You can make someone's day better by fixing their computer, or by singing them a song,” he said. “And both of these involve compassion, creativity, logic, and technique.” And he continues the balancing act, in part, because of Rowland Hall. “I was always encouraged to spend time doing what I was passionate about, and that goal has stuck with me,” he said. “Ultimate frisbee, robotics club, cross country, choir, jazz band—most of the things I am doing now, I was also doing in some form in high school.”

Actors on stage in front of orchestra.

Phinehas Bynum, second from left, stars in VocalEssence and Theater Latté Da’s March 2019 production of Candide. (Photos by Bruce Silcox, courtesy of VocalEssence)

Now, Phin’s arts life is expanding. The singer made his theatrical debut in March to rave reviews. Two Minneapolis arts organizations collaborated to present Candide, a reimagining of the Leonard Bernstein operetta. Phin landed the titular role. Tickets to the five-night, 505-seat show in the heart of downtown sold out early, so the final dress rehearsal became a sixth production. Phin called the performance—his largest to date—transformative. He described his character as an optimist whose misadventures make him wiser instead of bitter. “I'd consider myself a stubborn, but quiet optimist,” Phin said. “It was core-shaking to inhabit a character who lives his optimism completely on the outside, and it challenged me to let the rest of the world, the audience, see that element of me.” His months of practice paid off. In the Star Tribune, critic Terry Blain praised Phin’s performance: “Bynum cut a convincingly boyish figure, his light tenor imparting a touchingly artless quality to songs.”

Since Candide wrapped, Phin has spent more time making his own music—an exploration of jazz, pop, and electronic. He’s recording an album, a longtime dream that combines his musical and technical pursuits. He’s also excited to sing with MNOp again. “I get to sit in a room of wonderfully passionate and diverse folks and bring feelings and ideas and notes and rhythms off a piece of paper and into reality,” he said. “It's the best.” 

Phin credited Rowland Hall for a solid foundation, and expressed gratitude to teachers and administrators—particularly the late Linda Hampton, a beloved Upper School staffer who attended nearly all of his performances. “Linda called herself my ‘biggest fan,’” Phin said. “I’m blessed that my musical endeavors have always been supported by my family and friends, but Linda will always have a special place in my heart.”

Alumni

Jared Ruga '06 at whiteboard during writing session
Winged Lions on the Rise—title page graphic featuring six alumni.

Editor's note: this is one of six profiles republished from Rowland Hall's 2018–2019 Annual Report feature story, "Winged Lions on the Rise." Millennial alumni are finding their voices and already shaping their fields and communities—from physics to film, music to medical innovations, and environmental policy to conservation-minded real estate. Learn how Rowland Hall impacted them, and how they’re impacting the world. From left, Jared Ruga ’06, Claire Wang ’15, Phinehas Bynum ’08, Jeanna Tachiki Ryan ’01, Tyler Ruggles ’05, and Sarah Day ’06.


Rowland Hall lifer Jared Ruga grew up directing friends in eccentric homemade movies, including a “sci-fi space opera retelling” of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for freshman English. The young auteur was self-taught, though he did glean inspiration from attending the Sundance Film Festival every year since age 16. One decade and three advanced degrees later, he founded Vavani Productions. And in 2018, Vavani’s first film debuted at Sundance—it was chaos.

Jared and his team crafted a stirring documentary in Quiet Heroes. It tells the story of Dr. Kristen Ries and physician assistant Maggie Snyder, the only Utahns treating HIV/AIDS patients at the peak of that crisis. Vavani submitted a rough cut to Sundance expecting a rejection, so when it got in, they scrambled to finish it. Then came the thrilling-but-exhausting process of shepherding the film through the festival—Jared delivered his second Q&A with a 103-degree fever. He looks back on the madness and laughs, noting he’ll know to handle it if there’s a next time: “Maybe have the film totally done by the time you submit.”

Jared's time at Rowland Hall taught him that focus and commitment yield long-term rewards, even if it takes some short-term pain.

Still, Vavani’s bold moves paid off. Quiet Heroes secured three distribution deals. A TV showing qualified it for a Daytime Emmy, and in May, the doc won in its category—even edging out an Oprah special. Quiet Heroes was a challenging film to make over three years, Jared said, but his time at Rowland Hall taught him that focus and commitment yield long-term rewards, even if it takes some short-term pain. Plus, he knew the narrative deserved attention, and he was fueled by Salt Lake City’s supportive LGBTQ+ community. 

Three people standing together, around an Emmy award.

Jared Ruga holds his Emmy for Quiet Heroes, flanked by documentary subjects Dr. Kristen Ries and physician assistant Maggie Snyder. The trio visited Rowland Hall in May 2019 for Jared's speech during our annual Alumni Senior Breakfast—read that story.

Jared learned about Kristen and Maggie while earning his JD, MBA, and film MFA from the University of Utah (he credits Rowland Hall for sparking his interdisciplinary curiosity). As a gay man from Salt Lake, he was embarrassed he’d never before heard of the duo. “The scourge of the AIDS crisis in the ’80s and ’90s is a crucial part of Queer history that we in younger generations must understand and appreciate,” Jared said. So he shared the story, and it moved local audiences to tears: people who’d lost family to the epidemic told Jared the film was a beautiful, meaningful portrayal of that struggle. Plus, the movie’s message extends beyond that crisis: it’s about standing up for your community amidst adversity, and creating a sense of family for people who are otherwise ostracized. 

There’s a sense of duty that you need to pay it forward. Twenty years down the road, I hope that I’ve created an ecosystem for change.—Jared Ruga ’06

And that’s why Jared got into filmmaking. Upon founding Vavani, he wrote an ethos to tell compelling, socially conscious stories from underrepresented perspectives. The philosophy reflects his Rowland Hall roots: “Teachers were focused on making sure we weren’t just learning facts, we were learning how to be good stewards of our society,” he said. “There’s a sense of duty that you need to pay it forward.” Jared and his team have already released another documentary, and eventually hope to have a few films out every year. They’re also exploring “impact campaigns,” which could involve sending movies on tour, creating survivor-support networks, and more—part of Jared’s greater goal of advancing the conversation. “Twenty years down the road, I hope that I’ve created an ecosystem for change.”


Top: Jared in a Vavani Productions writing session for narrative TV series Graduates, one of several projects in development.

Alumni

You Belong at Rowland Hall