‘Catalyst’ host Vanessa Ruiz named to ’40 under 40′

Recently named to Phoenix Business Journal’s ‘40 under 40’ list, Ruiz reflects on her journey so far.

Vanessa Ruiz has become known to Arizona PBS viewers as the host of “Catalyst,” the science show produced by advanced ASU journalism students. But only a few years ago, she was the main evening news anchor at 12 News, the NBC affiliate in Phoenix, unaware that she’d soon be working with the next generation of journalists.

Over the course of almost two decades in broadcast journalism, in which she reported from all across the globe, Ruiz had started to consider that she should be mentoring young journalists. Her turning point was facing backlash from viewers when she pronounced Spanish words in Spanish on air as the new main anchor at 12 News, she said.

The correct pronunciation on air of words like “Mesa” and “Nogales” was met with criticism, and Ruiz, who was born in Miami, Florida, and is of Colombian descent, “felt discriminated against in my own country” for the first time in her career.

“It planted a seed inside of me where I said, ‘I want to do something where I can work with younger generations and hopefully try to get them to understand that they have no reason to be ashamed of where they come from or what their roots are or what their culture is.”

And that’s when Ruiz heard from Christopher Callahan, then dean of the Cronkite School. He persuaded her to join the faculty.

“I said ‘OK, I’ll give this a shot. Maybe this is an opportunity I’ve been manifesting,’” she said. “Here we are, almost three years later. It’s been an incredible ride.”

In those three years, she has become integral to the Cronkite School as director of Cronkite News’ Borderlands team and the school’s director for diversity initiatives.

She also serves as a liaison and advocate between other ASU units and the community at large when it comes to issues related to diversity, inclusion and equity.

Ruiz plays an equally pivotal part of Arizona PBS broadcasts. She hosted about half of this summer’s “Arizona Horizon Town Hall” series and she continues to host “Catalyst.” She has also served as fill-in anchor for PBS NewsHour’s western bureau, housed at the Cronkite School.

Ruiz’s impact at the Cronkite School and Arizona PBS — coupled with an extensive career covering events such as the Olympics, elections and the Pope’s visit to the United States — has brought her local recognition.

She was recently named to Phoenix Business Journal’s annual 40-under-40 list, which “honors the Valley’s brightest up-and-coming leaders who are already making a difference in the community,” according to the Journal’s website.

The list started with more than 400 nominations. Ruiz, 40, fumbled to find the right words to describe her selection.

“It was very unexpected, to be honest,” she said. “I was not ever thinking I’d be nominated for something like that. I was very surprised, very humbled.”

“And also, it gives me additional juice to keep doing what I’m doing.”

Her career began as an assignment desk editor for Telemundo Network. Mere weeks after signing her first full-time contract, the September 11 attacks took place. As uncertain as the times were, for a newly-hired journalist like Ruiz, they came with invaluable experience.

“I will never forget that time. I will never forget working in a newsroom during the aftermath of 9/11. I was so young. That will always forever remain with me as one of the key moments in my journalistic career. It was early on, but it certainly left a mark.”

As she moved from station to station, city to city, over the years, Ruiz established herself as a trusted and distinguished anchor. In 2016 and 2017, her team at 12 News won the Rocky Mountain Emmy for Best Evening Newscast.

Still, all the stories she tells don’t compare to the responsibility of working with students. At the Cronkite School, Ruiz said she’s as busy as she’s ever been in her career, tasked with training the next generation of storytellers.

Teaching was never in her plans, but that, she’s learned, is the beauty of the profession: it leads to unforeseen opportunities.

“We have some of the best students in the world, an incredible faculty, an incredible building with so many opportunities. It’s been an incredible experience.”

By Griffin Fabits. Photo by John Hall Photography.

This story was originally published in the Fall 2020 issue of Arizona PBS magazine.

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