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May 13, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, May 13, 2005

Breaking the college barrier Breaking the college barrier (May 13, 2005)

Chamber scholarship helps woman achieve her dreams

By Kathy Schrenk

Kathryn Ortiz always knew she wanted to be a teacher. In fact, as a child, she made her nieces and nephews play school with her, and she always played the teacher.

Now she finds herself at the University of Arizona at Tucson, working on a masters degree that she hopes will eventually help her teach adults who are working to learn English and improve their skills.

And while it's taken her a while to get to this point -- more than 35 years -- she's loving the experience.

Ortiz was the youngest of seven children in a very traditional Mexican American family in which no one had ever attended college. She broke that record by entering college for the first time just after high school graduation in 1968. But during her first year at the California State University campus where she grew up in San Bernardino, she got pregnant. "I became a single mom," she said. Back then, there weren't child care programs on college campuses or other supports for single moms, so she dropped out to support her boy.

"People don't realize, it was only 35 years ago, but the world was a different place, especially for women, especially for minority women," she said.

Then, when her son was 10, she got married, and in 1989 she moved to Silicon Valley. She worked for Cisco Systems for several years before deciding to follow her lifelong dream of becoming a teacher.

Ortiz remembers her first class at Foothill College. She was terrified of being the oldest and most overweight person in the room. She wondered if she would even fit into the desks. But she discovered that she was not even close to being the oldest or the biggest. "The youngest student was 18 and the oldest in that class was 80," she said.

She kept signing up for classes and soon found that she had nearly completed a two-year, associate degree. Then, with the help of a Mountain View Chamber of Commerce Women in Business scholarship, among other grants, Ortiz enrolled at Santa Clara University.

The Chamber award that Ortiz received is given annually to people from underdeveloped areas, individuals experiencing financial or family hardships and adults with high scholastic aptitude who are making life-changing career plans.

In about two years, Ortiz hopes to complete her masters degree in the U of A's Rhetoric, Composition and Teaching of English program, of which she's the first Hispanic female student. Now at the end of second semester, she has been nominated for an excellence in teaching award. She also teaches English as a Second Language to adult immigrants in a poor, mostly immigrant section of Tucson.

Her "dream job" is to come back to California and teach at a community college -- preferably Foothill, she said. "I love teaching. It's what I was meant to do."

She also hopes to inspire other people -- especially those who believe they are "too old" to go back to college -- to follow in her footsteps. "People who have more life experience have more to offer in the classroom," she said.

The Mountain View Chamber of Commerce Education Foundation Women in Business Scholarship collects contributions year round for its annual scholarship awards. For more information, call (650) 968-8378.

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