Elisa Betancourt-Ruvalcaba was 17 years old in 1996. In June that year, she visited a Kaiser Permanente hospital in San Diego where she lived. Her father, Felipe Betancourt, was the patient. The man she grew up to know as “warm-colored with a pudgy-ish face” lay in a hospital bed with sunken cheeks. His skin, gray, ash-colored.
“He had lost so much blood when I saw him,” Ruvalcaba remembered. “He was weak. He’s usually a very vibrant, colorful personality, and that was not the case.”
Ruvalcaba’s graduation from Patrick Henry High School was days away. She didn’t want to go without him. Her father disagreed. He told his daughter she can’t let what happened take away from the only high school graduation she’d have. That’s when she made a promise to Felipe.
“I said, ‘Pa, I will give you another graduation, and I promise you I will make it happen for us.’”
25 years ago,
The Betancourt family weren’t together the night of the attack in San Diego. Ruvalcaba and her younger brother spent the night with their respective friends. Felipe and his wife, Maria Betancourt, attended a wedding reception at a friend’s home. Maria was inside. Felipe stood in the front yard with another guest. A car drove down the residential street.
One bullet struck Felipe’s right temple. A second through his left arm. A third hit his right arm. A fourth pierced his left side, traveling through his abdomen and exiting out of the opposite side.
“My husband was pushing a guest into the house to get out of the way, and a bullet hit him,” Maria said. “And he fell to the ground.”
A police investigation confirmed teenagers carried out the drive-by shooting, an act of retaliation against someone who lived in the area. Felipe being shot was a case of mistaken identity, Maria noted.
“We were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said.
First responders rushed Felipe to the hospital’s intensive care unit. The doctors were honest with his family: the first few hours were critical.
“When my brother and I got to the hospital, my mom walked into the waiting room and told us, ‘Your dad has been shot,’” Ruvalcaba said. “That’s how we found out. We broke down, cried, thinking we were going to lose my dad.”
Felipe was unsure if he would survive. Just in case, he said goodbye to his family.
A different path
Life changed for Felipe and Ruvalcaba after the shooting. He spent six weeks recovering in an intensive care unit. Felipe was a construction worker for decades while Maria worked as a bilingual speech therapist. They’ve been married for 43 years. He suffered permanent damage from the shooting.
“I can’t move my fingers individually on my left hand anymore, but together I can,” he explained.
Once healed, Felipe switched careers. His part-time work as a barber at his father’s business, Raymond’s Barbershop in San Diego, became full-time. Felipe’s physical pain waned, but internal hurt remained.
“You wait your whole life to see your kid graduate,” he said. “It was a really hard moment not to be there. I told her if she graduated from college, I would definitely be there no matter where she’s at.”
Ruvalcaba began attending college after graduating high school. She accrued more than 100 credit hours, but kept changing her major. Then, life happened.
“If life was that easy, it would have been a couple of years later,” she said graduating from college early. “I had so many obstacles to overcome, a lot of trauma. I did family first and then, college second. That’s the easiest way to explain it.”
Years later, Ruvalcaba met her husband in San Diego. The family moved to Fort Bragg around seven years after he joined the U.S. Army. As her children became school-aged, one of her sons was diagnosed with a form of autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The diagnosis made Ruvalcaba notice similarities between herself and her son. She got tested. The results showed she, too, has a form of autism, which can make social settings and high-sensory environments a challenge. Those answers better prepared her for classes at FTCC in addition to seeking help from the College’s Disability Support Services & Accessibility Office.
“This wouldn’t have been the same journey at any other school,” the 42-year-old said about the support she received. “Everyone I’ve encountered, I can’t say enough.”
Then, the deadly coronavirus pandemic spread across the world in 2020. The virus killed millions while creating a new normal for millions more – forced quarantines, travel restrictions, business closures and required online learning for students, efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. Ruvalcaba made a choice: finish her degree on time or not. She earned a certification to homeschool her children. Graduating college would have to wait for the 42-year-old mother of four.
“I was no longer pressing myself to be a full-time student,” she said. “Some semesters were full-time, and some were part-time. But I stayed in school.”
May 14, 2021
When FTCC, like many other higher education institutions, held virtual graduations for the Class of 2020, Ruvalcaba decided to extend her time as a student. She remembered the promise she made to her father when she was 17. At her high school graduation in 1996, she instinctively opened her arms to hug Felipe after embracing her mother and brother. He wasn’t there.
“We all noticed, and we all just cried,” she said.
That changed in 2021. Health experts and researchers worked tirelessly to create safety protocols and a vaccine for COVID-19. FTCC was one of thousands of institutions across the nation readying for a return to in-person graduation for the Class of 2021. Ruvalcaba called her parents in San Diego. For her mother, Maria, the chance to see her daughter fulfill a decades-long promise was near.
“I know how difficult things have been for her, being a married woman with children,” Maria said. She was enrolled at San Diego State University at the time, pursuing her master’s degree, when Felipe was shot. Maria decided to work and take fewer classes, providing medical insurance and care for Felipe.
She continued, “As women, we struggle just to be mothers and then add our personal goals on top of that while we nurture our families. I’m proud she’s following her dreams in spite of all her responsibilities. What a wonderful mother and woman she is.”
Ruvalcaba graduated from FTCC on May 14. She earned an associate degree in fine arts with an emphasis in theatre; she also earned highest honors. Ruvalcaba plans to earn her bachelor’s degree in writing at Southern New Hampshire University and after, earn a master’s degree. In the crowd was her mother and father. Felipe wore a black velour jacket from the designer Alfani. He only wears it for special occasions. Felipe saw Ruvalcaba walk across a graduation stage with her cap, gown and honor cords. Felipe promised his daughter when she was a teenager, he would see her graduate, no matter the location.
San Diego is 2,518 miles away from FTCC’s Fayetteville campus.
“I was just in heaven watching her,” he said. “I finally got to be there for her graduation, and that means a lot. You can’t imagine how good my heart felt. I’m really happy for her because her mom was the role model for her, and she’ll be a role model for her kids. My daughter is very special to me. I love her so much.”
After graduates turned their tassels, Ruvalcaba found her family in the crowd. She hugged her mother first. This time, there wasn’t an empty space next to Maria when Ruvalcaba graduated high school. There stood Felipe. A daughter embraced her father.
“He was there,” she said. “It’s full circle. He told me he loved me, and that he was so proud of me with or without a degree.”
They both kept their promise, 25 years later.
FTCC’s upcoming Fall Semester begins Aug. 2021. Learn what you need to become a student, and “find your way forward at FTCC” here.
As Ruvalcaba prepares to earn her bachelor degree in writing, she contributes to the Army Wife Network blog. You can read her pieces here.