Staff member guides students on path to higher education

Osiris Ortiz
As a first-generation college student herself and a UC Santa Cruz alumna, Ortiz has spent years talking with the students about the benefits of post-secondary education. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

For nearly 20 years, Osiris Ortiz has worked hard to help as many low-income students attend college as possible.

Much of that time has been with UC Santa Cruz’s Educational Partnership Center, which increases access to higher education for underrepresented students across the Monterey Bay, Pajaro Valley, and Silicon Valley. The EPC helps educationally-disadvantaged students in the region reach and succeed in college.

As a first-generation college student herself and a UC Santa Cruz alumna, Ortiz has spent years talking with the students about the benefits of post-secondary education.

“We say, ‘You will have more stability, which offers you a better quality of life,’” Ortiz said. “You can build a better life for yourself and your future family, if that’s what you want. You’ll be able to support your family or help your parents.”

Shortly after graduating from UC Santa Cruz in 2001, Ortiz got a job helping with programing at Oakes College. She then moved to the Educational Partnership Center and began doing outreach with high school students all over the Monterey Bay region. She is currently serving as the interim assistant director for GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) in Watsonville and the Pajaro Valley.

GEAR UP offers tutoring, college and career centers, college/educational field trips, academic advising and financial aid information. The services are important to local students because many have no experience with the university/post-secondary systems.

“They don’t necessarily have the knowledge to get to college,” Ortiz said. “They need someone to walk them through and help them understand the bureaucracy because often they are the first in their families to be going through this experience. Our programs bridge the cultural capital and resources needed to navigate post-secondary systems.”

Ortiz can relate to their experience. Her parents immigrated from El Salvador and didn’t know how the university system worked. However, they always valued education and made sure their three children knew the importance of academics.

“When they raised and brought us up, they emphasized that we do well in school and focus on school,” she said. “School came first. My dad wouldn’t buy us a Nintendo because it would take away from our study time.”

As a high school student in Los Angeles, she took part in the Early Outreach Academic Program and followed the advice she was given about how to prepare for university. It also helped that her two older sisters went to college.

“Having seen them do it, then it was more attainable,” she said.

Now, as an employee of UC Santa Cruz, Ortiz finds that one of the biggest challenges of doing outreach with high school students is helping families see post-secondary education as an attainable option for them. Many families are worried about their children drowning in student loans. She tries to assure them that there are options for financial aid.

Doing outreach has become even more challenging with the onset of the COVID–19 pandemic. Like all other university programs, everything has moved online. GEAR UP staff have been able to conduct workshops virtually using Google Meets or Zoom. They have also set up virtual college visits, tutoring and academic advising.

The transition to online interaction was made easier by the center’s the long-term relationships with high schools, Ortiz said. It underscores what she’s always known—that partnerships with the community are everything.

“All the relations we build are super critical,” she said. “Those relationships form opportunities for our students. That’s what it all boils down to—what opportunity and experience are we able to offer our students.”