Outstanding Staff Award honoree is a passionate advocate for STEM diversity

This year’s award winner, Yulianna Ortega, has made her mark as a leader and mentor

Yulianna Ortega got a phone call on her birthday letting her know that she is this year's Outstanding Staff Award recipient. "I was elated and grateful,'' she said. Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta.


Yulianna Ortega (Merrill, '09, Latin American & Latino studies and biology) is a passionate advocate and mentor, working hard to bridge the diversity gap in science, engineering, and technology. 

In her time at UC Santa Cruz, Ortega, the campus's STEM Diversity Programs director, has earned the trust and respect of fellow staff members, faculty, and students across divisions. 

Now she is getting campuswide recognition for all of her contributions to UC Santa Cruz. After 15 years of excellent work on campus, she is being honored with this year’s Outstanding Staff Award.

To Ortega’s great surprise, the good news came on her birthday. “I was elated and grateful to celebrate this milestone with those that have shaped me: my culture, my parents, my husband, my two daughters, my community, my teachers, and mentors and those that support the work I do.”  

Ortega has a longstanding personal commitment to her work. “I believe many talented individuals are hidden in the communities that are not traditionally represented in STEM,” she said. “Over the past 15 years of serving students, I’ve witnessed students manage and excel in academics while overcoming personal hardships, structural barriers and racism."

“Throughout the years I continue to stay in touch with many of these students, so I am overwhelmed with joy and humbled by their nomination,” Ortega said. “While the world might recognize them as scientists, I have the honor of knowing them as individuals. My reward comes from knowing the most amazing human beings with the most impressive talents.”

Mentoring is an essential part of her work. “It promotes resilience," Ortega said. "It celebrates diversity, culture, and individual identities while embracing scientific discovery to solve the world’s pressing issues.”

The UCSC STEM Diversity Programs encompass a variety of programs that support underrepresented students in STEM fields. 

The Office of STEM Diversity Programs is an umbrella office that includes programs funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, as well as state-funded and donor-supported programs.

The ever-humble Ortega—affectionately known as “Yuli”—wants to share her recent successes and this latest honor with her staff members Xingci Situ and Daniela Bolanos and the faculty directors of the programs her department runs, along with the talented students who have gone on to represent UC Santa Cruz at universities and workplaces all over the world. 

“Thank you for making space and time, and for all your effort in recognizing staff,” Ortega said, addressing the UCSC Alumni Association, which administers the award. “I am committed to the values of community, diversity, and inclusion at UCSC, and I am happy to work alongside all of you, too.”

Situ was expansive about Ortega’s talent and influence in her letter of recommendation to the selection committee. She noted that Ortega has mentored over 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students since 2005, when she started out as a program assistant in the STEM Diversity Programs. 

“As a first-generation college student and Latina woman in STEM, she understands the daily struggles, family pressures, and mental stress that minority students face every day,” Situ said. “Ms. Ortega is a person who deeply cares about students’ academic success and their well-being. She has a unique perspective of student mentoring in which she believes in individualized mentorship. She always makes herself available to the students whenever they need to talk.” 

Situ also called attention to Ortega’s warm and welcoming personality, describing her as “selfless, and a giver at heart, always carrying a positive and uplifting attitude.” 

UC Santa Cruz Astronomy and Astrophysics Professor Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz praised her vision and commitment, as well as her effectiveness as a leader. 

“Moving an organization toward greater diversity, equity, and inclusion requires intentional, committed, and often courageous leadership,” Ramirez-Ruiz said. “Yuli has been able to articulate a unique vision and model the changes that are needed to create meaningful change at UCSC. Yuli is one of the most gifted mentors and has empowered hundreds of students. Her intelligence and grace set the bar high for campus leaders and students alike, and she continues to serve as one of our greatest inspirations. I am incredibly lucky to work alongside her.”

Students who have been mentored by Ortega also praised her commitment. 

"As a minority student, I have always felt that she has had my back and well-being in mind,” said Stephanie Nystrom, a graduate student in the Department of Molecular, Cell & Developmental Biology. “She takes everything seriously and is active in learning to keep up with everything that is going on with her students and the climate. If she does not understand our experiences, she is willing to listen and educate herself. This allows her to become an even better mentor every year for the future students that come through the program.”

The UCSC Alumni Association established the Outstanding Staff Award in 1995. After 25 years, this award continues to recognize and celebrate staff who have displayed distinguished service to student life, the growth and improvement of UCSC's programs, and the preservation of UCSC's unique intellectual and physical environment. 

Alumni value the hard work and dedication of UCSC staff and look forward to this opportunity to honor them with this annual award.

Aaron Jones, UCSC’s Associate Director for Black Student Success, and chair of the campus’s Staff Advisory Board, spoke of the importance of the annual staff awards, as well as the many impressive contenders in this year’s field. 

“The 2020 nominations pool was awe-inspiring, comprising over 100 nominees, who represent a vast array of backgrounds, job titles, campus units, and years of experience,” he said. 

“While there were many excellent and deserving candidates this year," Jones said, "the nominations for Yulianna Ortega spoke to her true dedication to her students, as well as staff and faculty colleagues; the positive impact her work with the STEM Diversity Program has had for the campus; and how much she has contributed to the success of the individual students she works with.”