As a first-generation and low-income student, Monica Cerda Ortiz ’20 started her freshman year of college feeling powerless and not knowing where she belonged.
That quickly changed as she learned the importance of finding campus groups where she felt represented and supported at Western Oregon University.
She is grateful for the WOU faculty, staff, students and community members for empowering her to believe in herself.
“They motivated me to reach my full potential and inspired me to make positive impacts in my campus and community,” she says.
Her passion for social justice, ability to empower others and a multitude of other leadership qualities have earned Cerda Ortiz the prestigious 2020 Delmer Dewey/Julia McCulloch Smith Award.
“This award is truly an honor and means the world to me. It means the sacrifices my parents, Jesus and Erendira, have made were worth it,” Cerda Ortiz says. “This award means that with resiliency, optimism and a support system, one can accomplish their goals.”
The Cerda Ortiz family has a great deal to celebrate in June with two family members graduating.
“My sister, Susana Cerda Ortiz, supported me a lot through college, and we went to WOU together for the past two years,” Monica Cerda Ortiz said.
Susana Cerda Ortiz ’20 is graduating as an Interdisciplinary major with a concentration area in social science, humanities and biology.
Cerda Ortiz’s first leadership experience was joining Discover Leadership. That led her to become a student coordinator for the Multicultural Representatives, which developed her passion to support underrepresented and underserved students. She earned leadership roles in various student organizations including the Associated Students of Western Oregon University (ASWOU), WOU Food Pantry, Oregon Students Association and Unidos Club. Her proposal for a Dream Center won the J. Dolores and Alfred P. Maurice Initiative. Her project was to create a resource center for underrepresented students.
“I’ve definitely learned to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and embrace challenging myself through different leadership positions on campus and in the community,” she says. “My own experiences within ASWOU and my activism have shown me that an unwritten part of leadership is to empower others to step up.”
A graduate of North Salem High School, Cerda Ortiz advises incoming and current WOU students to take every opportunity to find their passion and make connections with others.
“I found my voice and grew as a person and a leader through engaging in organizations and clubs I was passionate about,” Cerda Ortiz says.
Cerda Ortiz once thought receiving a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish was the finish line for her education.
“My college experience has been truly eye-opening, because I learned that my Latinx community is not represented in crucial places such as local school boards and at the state and federal level,” she says. “I plan to pursue a master’s degree in public policy or education, because I realized one piece of legislation can have a major impact.”
As the ASWOU vice president, Cerda Ortiz has been working alongside student government and administrators to ensure students have the resources they need to stay healthy and continue their education during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“I believe COVID-19 is teaching us a lot about what humanity is and about the importance of a community,” she says. “It’s teaching us that life is a shared experience, and we must all recognize the importance of a society where people have access to the resources they need.”
She encourages all first generation and underrepresented students to remember that their experiences are important, and they belong in higher education institutions.
“Do not let the impostor syndrome stop you from striving for your goals,” she says. “Seek support when you need it, and when you can, be that help for someone else.”