Jay Ruckelshaus is not your average undergraduate student. Now entering his senior year at Duke University, Ruckelshaus majors in political science and philosophy and has earned the Faculty Scholar Award as well as the Angier B. Duke Scholarship. He was also recently named a Harry S. Truman Scholar. Shortly before he was to begin attending Duke in 2011, he sustained a spinal cord injury. Ruckelshaus delayed his enrollment and focused on recovering from his injury and learning to adapt to life with quadriplegia. He attributes some of his recovery to having had such an important goal – college – in mind. His mantra was “Duke Duke Duke.”
Since his injury, Ruckelshaus has become a passionate advocate for the disability community. He founded and serves as president of Ramp Less Traveled, a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting individuals with spinal cord injuries in the pursuit of higher education through scholarships and a mentoring program. During the year he spent recovering from his injury, Ruckelshaus became acutely aware of the difficulty of transitioning from a hospital to university setting. When he began attending Duke, he kept in contact with other patients who remained in recovery. Ruckelshaus believes that it is important not only to treat the physical manifestations of disability, but also to address the social and mental needs of people with disabilities by ensuring they are able to live a fully inclusive college experience.
In addition to his own foundation, Ruckelshaus has presented at numerous regional and national conferences on disability issues. He also works closely with campus administrators and heads Duke’s Accessibility Matters campaign. In collaboration with the university, Ruckelshaus organized Beyond Disability, Beyond Compliance, a retreat designed with the goal of increasing “visibility of national higher education concerns and challenges regarding disability, as well as give those affected a clear pathway to help foster change and inclusion.” His hope is that the retreat will become a bi-annual event and assist university administrators across the country in moving beyond mere compliance with applicable disability laws and educating them on how to create truly inclusive academic environments for their students with disabilities.
During the summer between his junior and senior years, Ruckelshaus has been serving as a Montgomery Summer Research Diversity Fellow for the American Bar Foundation. As a Fellow, he has been exposed to various aspects of the legal profession through court visits, trips to Chicago law firms, and interaction with different sections of the American Bar Association. He has been assisting Professor Christopher Schmidt by researching sit-ins that took place during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, as well as writing research memos on more current United States Supreme Court rulings.
Ruckelshaus hopes to pursue a JD/PhD in either political science or political theory. As part of his Truman Scholarship, he intends to spend a year after graduation working for a government agency or non-profit organization. His goal is to leverage his education and experience into becoming an even stronger advocate.