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Working the College Circuit

Times Staff Writer

Martin Ortiz is the director of Whittier College’s Center of Mexican American Affairs and a friend, role model and mentor to all. A 1948 Whittier graduate--and the only Latino to get a diploma that year--Ortiz is credited by many for recruiting and retaining Latino students , who now make up 20% of the school’s 1,100 enrollment. Known simply as “Dad” to students, Ortiz, who has been an administrator with the college for 25 years, spoke with reporter Michael Quintanilla about the need for Latinos to enroll and stay--in college.

“A few months ago we had a group of about 60 at-risk students from local junior high schools--kids who could drop out any day--here on the Whittier campus.

“At the beginning of the session I asked the kids: ‘How many of you have been on a college campus before?’ No hands went up. Then I asked them: ‘How many of you want to go to college?’ Not one hand went up.

“That made me feel sad and angry. It took me back to when I was a kid.

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“I was born and raised in Wichita, Kan. I was about the only Hispanic student at my school then. At first, I felt out of place. I held back a lot in school. I was bashful and self-conscious, probably because back then Mexicans were considered low-level human beings.

“When I was 13, I became frustrated with school and uninspired, and so two other fellows and I became hobos. For 3 1/2 years we rode the freight trains all over the country. We worked the harvests along the way for food and shelter.

“But I became too unsettled about that way of life. I felt I had learned my lesson and that I had to return to school. I received encouragement from my high school principal, who told me ‘Just one person like yourself can make a difference.’ I graduated, served in World War II and came to Whittier on the GI Bill. I got ganas .

“That is one of my favorite terms. Ganas is having enthusiasm, inspiration and the desire to know what is going on around you and being a part of it. Ganas is knowing that there are people out there who want to help you get an education, help you succeed, excel.

“A student has to start getting ganas at the elementary school level because this is where kids should start getting encouragement and inspiration. By the time they get to junior high, it’s kind of late because that is a rather unsettled period of their lives. Kids are trying to find out where they fit in and where they stand. And if they feel that they don’t fit in college, they won’t make the attempt.

“That is why we expose kids to our campus at an early age. There is also a lot that can be done not only with the children but with the family as an entity.

“I say to a parent or parents, ‘Know your son and daughter and let them know that you have an interest and concern for their educational experience. Do everything you can to help them stay in school.

“I tell parents that their son or daughter doesn’t have to settle down, work and raise a family as soon as they get out of high school. There are other options, including college, if you have the drive, the ganas .

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“I was the first one in my family to graduate from college.

“My mother died when I was 8 years old, but I was very close to my dad, who fought alongside Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution. Anything I’ve done I’ve attributed to my father because he never went to school and he always used to say to me to use my head. He was here for my graduation in ’48. When I walked passed him to get my diploma, he was in tears.

“I am committed to getting kids into college and keeping them here. All students, including those at-risk kids who came to visit us. When those kids ended their day with us here, I asked them again: ‘Now how many of you want to go to college?’ About two-thirds of the hands went up.

“That made me feel great. But remember this, anything we have done here with our program is minuscule. We are just scratching the surface--and that is the challenge to the work that lies ahead.”

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This column tells the stories of the unsung heroes of Southern California, people of all ages and vocations and avocations, whose dedication as volunteers or on the job makes life better others. The column is published every other Monday. Reader suggestions are welcome and may be sent to Local Hero Editor, View, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, 90053.


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