In the little town of Cuomo, Puerto Rico, Dr. Tony Ortiz was the third of 13 kids raised by parents whose work ethic, faith, and love for their children produced a tight-knit family. With added guidance and support from the Catholic Church and an afterschool program, the “it takes a village” mentality took root and helped get him to Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, where he found his calling in sports medicine. Eventually he became director of sports medicine, and as he developed relationships with students, colleagues, staff and community leaders, he became a liaison to the Latino community.
Now serving as the associate vice president of the first-ever Latino Affairs Office at Wright, Ortiz has an official home for outreach programs that not only highlight Latino potential but reap benefits for the university. Created two years ago, the office, under Ortiz’s leadership and support from President David R. Hopkins, offers a variety of programs that bridge younger students with college students, parents with community resources, and community and think tank leaders with the university. The office is an innovative godsend.
"Historically Latino initiatives get lost in multicultural centers,” Ortiz explains. “No Latinos are consulted in decisions for programs or outreach. Here we have an actual center for our students. Every Friday they have a meet-up to connect them to others. The primary goal is to retain them. Next year we’re projecting 80 percent retention.”
His retention plan includes personal invest-ment and commitment and an authentic desire to see Latino students prosper and become invested in their communities. Ortiz is the bridge linking students to opportunity.
“The office is a win for everyone,” says Dr. Robert Sweeney, executive vice president for planning in the president’s office. Six years ago Wright gathered 20 progressive, unique community thought-leaders to shake things up, suggesting how to become a more relevant, better institution. Ortiz was one of those at the table, pushing the need for programs that recruited Latino families, not just kids. “We get numerous requests for support where it’s all about ‘me,’” Sweeney says. “But with Tony it’s always- how is this better for our students? He develops relationships with kids. He develops relationships with Latino leaders—and he doesn’t know the word ‘no’ to develop relevant programs. Everything about his life is connection.”
When the Latino Affairs Office opened, Ortiz’s connections were already at the core of its foundation.
Ripple Effect Connections
Felix Torres was going into his senior of high school in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, when his sister urged him to visit her in Dayton in 2002 and enroll in a summer athletic training camp at Wright State. It was Torres’ first time on a college campus, far from home, and immersion in the rigorous camp had participants visiting anatomy labs, studying cadavers, and wrapping ankles proved challenging.
His coach? Tony Ortiz. “It was impressive,” says Torres. “It was the first time I ever met someone in higher ed who was Latino, someone who looked and talked like me who had made it. If I had gone and not made the connection, I don’t know if I’d have continued in the field.”
Ortiz kept in touch when Torres returned to their homeland. Upon graduating, Torres applied to Wright and entered the sports medicine program. Ortiz guided him along. He ultimately earned a master’s in student affairs in higher education and administration.
Now Torres is director of Camino de Vida, an outreach mentor program and student reward system geared at middle and high school students, born through the Office of Latino Affairs. Working with other community organizations and mentors like engineers associated with the nonprofit Academy for STEM and Sports, students meet four times a week for help with homework, mentoring, community service opportunities and field trips to shows, sporting events, academic lectures, community action and political rallies.
“We are trying to influence our Latino youth to look at their options and convince parents it’s not impossible to improve their quality of life,” says Torres.
“I want to help make their transition seamless for higher education.”
Retention is the Key.
Alyssa Wagner director of El Puente Educa-tional Center, another outreach program, sees the positive impact of Wright’s outreach efforts. “In Ohio, only 50 percent of Latino students end up graduating from high school,” says Wagner. “At Camino de Vida, for our students who attend regu-larly, there is a 0 percent dropout rate.”
Programs that Launch a Thousand Careers
Camino de Vida is only one of Ortiz’s passions. Wright launched a student exchange program partnership with Panama University helps students become bilingual, culturally relevant, and more marketable. “There’s a serious need for bilingual nurses and educators—and experience,” said Ortiz.
Wright’s students can get practice in their fields while improving Spanish skills and cultural awareness. Panama is interested in Wright State’s urban affairs and climate control studies because of its environmental issues.
El Puente Education Center provides a school tutoring program, is a safe place for elementary age kids, and is a connection for parents with the schools. Privately funded, it allows undergraduates to work on service learning projects such as tutoring. Students improve reading skills and develop a love of reading.
“Some things are not quantifiable,” explains Wagner. That applies to their focus on values that can guide them for life. On the walls are signs that read: “Share with others.” “Say please and thank you.” “Be polite.”
On Friday nights, parents also get a taste of these values when they come to the center to connect with others while navigating the educational system for their children. “It’s become like a big familia,” says Ortiz. “They solve a lot of their own problems just by coming together and talking. One hundred percent of the parents show up.”
Ortiz inspires and challenges to go beyond comfort zones to find new perspectives. Only when El Puente was initially up and running did he drop in for weekly visits, making sure they had what was needed, says Wagner. “Tony really knows how to develop leadership in others because he’s not looking over your shoulder to make sure it’s done exactly the way he wants. He’s really given El Puente a lot of autonomy, trusting me to use good judgment to figure things out. There’s nothing like that kind of trust and confianza to let someone spread their wings and fly with a project, and become a leader themselves.”
These leaders are sought by The Latino Dream Team, a group of high level Latino politicians and community movers and shakers. Started by Ortiz, this group focuses on mentorship, investing, and networking. “We’ve become a conduit, a bridge,” says Ortiz. “They already know the quality of students coming from El Puente and Camino de Vida and can count on them for their teams as employees and leaders. The kids know they have contacts in the community and can improve their chances of getting a job.”
Ortiz wants the Office of Latino Affairs to be sustainable with programs that can last forever in concept and practice. “I’m most happy about the culture change that has already occurred,” he says. “Non-Latino student volunteers were afraid to come to the center to do their tutoring and now when they’re done with their service learning, they come back. They love it.”
Practicing and teaching compassion seems to drive Ortiz personally as well as professionally. A father of two, Ortiz speaks quietly when recalling how his older daughter moved back to help care for his 26-year-old daughter who was diagnosed with cancer. When she passed away last year, family and “the village” carried him.
Sweeney remembers the trying time. “This is where he is selfless. He took personal tragedy and asked that in lieu of flowers to send money to establish a scholarship fund set up in her name.”
It is those gestures that build legacies and are far reaching, launching new generations of compassionate, thoughtful leaders. Catherine Hernández, the graduate assistant in the Office of Latino Affairs, sees firsthand Ortiz’s energy and mission.
“Sometimes I get stunned by all he has done, but you would never know unless he told you,” says Hernández. “Tony is about serving the community and loving students. He does everything with them in mind.”
Ortiz’s efforts push students, parents, faculty, and community leaders to think far beyond education, holding close the power of their roots to guide them. “He makes them proud to be Latino,” says Hernández. “He inspires them and shows them that in being a Latino you can have positions of leadership, be respected, be excellent at what you do, and make a difference in your community.”