The doors didn’t open until 7:30, but that didn’t stop crowds of USF students creating a big line as early as 5 p.m. on Tuesday evening to see actress Jackie Cruz, best known for her role as “Flaca” on the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black. Cruz was on the Tampa campus presenting her lecture “Cruzing Through Adversity,” which was a tale about her near-fatal accident that changed the trajectory of her life and focus.  

Like most of the students, Tiara Desper, a junior at USF studying Biomedical Sciences, is a big fan of the show and wanted to learn more about Cruz as a person.  “I came because she’s in Orange is the New Black but I don’t know much about her and I think it’ll be interesting to learn about adversity and her struggles getting through it and getting successful.”  

Cruz stepped out with a short pixie haircut, a very different style from her long-haired character on Orange, and a bright smile. The Oval Theatre was engulfed in huge cheers and a big Dominican Republic flag that Cruz noticed immediately. Originally from the D.R. as she often referred to it, Cruz moved to Hollywood while in high school at her mother’s insistence that she follow her dream to be an actress.

Cruz talked about her life in the Dominican Republic and being raised by a young single mother and her mother’s “powerful sisters.” Her mother studied to be a nurse and eventually became a doctor. Cruz said at a young age her mother didn’t want her daughter to be like her, a mother at 16, so her mom made her watch videos of women giving birth and read books on STDs—she was afraid of boys for a while, she chuckled.

Her ideas on a career path as an actress and singer came forth at the age of five after watching “The Bodyguard,” where she fell in love with Whitney Houston. After seeing the movie and walking home with her mom, Cruz told her that she wanted to be an actress and singer. Cruz said she was surrounded by musicians while growing up in the Dominican Republic and her aunt would play Billie Holiday and other jazzy music in her adolescence. At the age of 15 in pursuit of singing and acting Cruz and her mother left all their family behind in the Dominican Republic moved to Hollywood. Cruz stated the most difficult thing about moving was making friends in a new school and getting representation in her field as a native of the Dominican Republic. “I had this dream and of course physically I wasn’t known,” she said, “I believe we need more representation on screen.” Despite all of that, she was adamant to pursue her dream.

I Focused on What I wanted to Do and Learned My Craft 

The audience was enthralled by her positivity and her openness to talk about the dark parts of her life.  She left her home with her mom at 16 to live with her friend “Becky” when a near fatal car accident changed her life.

Cruz had gotten tickets to KIIS-FM Wango Tango and being under the influence, “[Becky and I] were on our way to this concert and she starts racing this dude, I told her ‘woah, slow down’ and she tried to slow down and lost control. The car flipped three times and I flew out the window,” Cruz recalled. She talked about as she was laying on the floor bleeding, Becky was frantically on the phone with her mom asking what she should do because she didn’t have a license. Becky’s only concern seemed to be saving herself from trouble and not the physical crisis her friend was in.

A man on a bicycle came to Cruz’s aid and was the one to call for help. “I would have died without him and I don’t even know his name,” Cruz recollected. “I woke up two weeks later, I have this tube down my throat. My face is all jacked up, my smile was crooked.” She had a shaved head with 30 staples keeping her skull together, the addition of a titanium plate to keep her body intact, collapsed lung, kidney contusion.  Cruz said she looked in the mirror and thought her dream as an actress was gone. She talked about her difficulties with coping with how she looked and how she tried to end her life, twice.

During her time in the hospital, Cruz  talked about how she was a selfish teenager saying, “I didn’t care about anyone other than myself.” Every day, as she was focused on coping from her physical condition and her looks, a little girl in a wheelchair, would always be around in Cruz’s room. Eventually, they both spoke and when the little girl said she just wanted her to know that she was pretty, Cruz said it changed her life.

Never Put A Time Limit On Your Dream 

“She saw something in me that I didn’t see,” Cruz said as she became reenergized about her passion and goals in life.  After recovering back home in the Dominican Republic and starting to grow her hair out after it had been shaved, Cruz said: “I went back to Hollywood with my six pack and mullet.”

Cruz said if there was only one thing the audience members could get out of her story was, “never put a time limit on your dream.”

Her tenacity mentality of “I didn’t take no for an answer,” truly paints a tale of perseverance through hardship.

“I want to break barriers. I’m not going to sit here and complain about it. I’m going to change it.”

About the Lecture Series

The University of South Florida’s ULS started in the Fall of 1986 with a mix of speakers from USF faculty and staff but has grown to include national speakers. The main goal of the series is to “develop intellectual potential and present interesting and relevant information on a variety of scholastic and community-oriented interests.” Notable speakers have included Jane Goodall, Bill Nye, and Viola Davis. 

Upcoming Lectures 


October 25, 2017, USF Marshall Student Center Ballroom, 8 p.m. 

On October 25th, the second featured speaker in the series is writer, TV producer, screenwriter, and executive editor, R.L. Stine discussing his career and creative process in writing novels for adults. Stine is known for his popular teen horror series “Goosebumps,” which has been a staple in young adult reading for millennials.

Ian Harvie

November 14, 2017, USF Marshall Student Center Oval Theatre, 8 p.m. 

On November 14th, the final speaker for the season is a transgender actor and comedian Ian Harvie from the shows “Transparent” and “Mistresses.” Harvie will be offering a new perspective and relatable insight on life from discussing love, family, gender identity, and popular culture!

The University Lecture Series is free and open to the public, with USF students getting priority seating. Non-students are admitted on a first come, first served basis at the doors on the day of the event until the room reaches capacity.

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