Legacy: Our Story

REAL students are often the first in their family to attend college. A pattern is then created that can affect generations. We heard many stories of women whose children were inspired to pursue higher education after the mothers had graduated from the REAL program. We had one woman whose niece followed her to Tufts; at graduation the woman's parents watched both their daughter and granddaughter walk across the stage.

Edwin Ortiz

Q: Edwin, please describe to me a regular day in your life before you decided to go back to college.

A: I was the associate director at a public access television station. That meant being in charge of the daily operations at that station. There was an educational component to the job. We taught classes in video production and I also produced some television shows at the station. I was a production coordinator as well as the associate director.

Q: What kind of shows did you do?

A: We did mostly community, things. As a public access station we basically provided the tools for creating media for the citizens of Cambridge. I was there for seven years. I started there as an administrative assistant and became a membership coordinator. In year three, I think, I became the associate director. We helped people in the community make television programs that we ran on three cable stations for Cambridge.

Q: What was it that made you go back to college?

A: I had previously started a degree in music. And my trajectory was a little bit like I had been an artist, a working musician, and I went to school at Berklee School of Music. At some point in this process I decided that I didn’t want to be a performer anymore and I got this arts administration job which led to my job at the television station. So, here I was in this position as an associate director without a degree. And, well, while I knew that the work I was doing was good, I always wondered what was missing. What information didn’t I have that my colleagues with degrees did have. I guess I had like a chip on my shoulder, a private chip on my shoulder about a private insecurity about what I didn’t know, what skills I didn’t have that maybe others had, even though I had a pretty good position in terms of the field.

I think that for the longest time I did not go back to school because I thought that I should be really focused about what I want to major in. And my previous experience of undergraduate education had been so focused. So in my return to school, I thought I should be as specific. But as the years went on, I realized more about this private insecurity I was talking about. I decided it was more important to me to have the education, to find what it was that people had experienced that I hadn’t than to know exactly what I wanted to do with the degree. And another thing that came into play was that I wanted to make another transition, professionally. My next step was either to become an associate director at another access station or an executive director at another access station which probably wouldn’t happen without a degree. And when I realized that, I think that is when I decided I really needed to go back to school.

Q: So, you decided that you have to go back to school. How did you go about that? How was your research? What were your deciding factors for the school? Were you looking for something specific?

A: At first I did not know that I was able to do it. I was a little insecure about it. And I thought what I would do was to set goals for myself and accomplish them. A long term goal for me at the time was to run the Boston Marathon. (Laughs.) Which seems like it has nothing to do with going back to school, but for me it was crucial. It was a crucial part.

Q: How so?

A: What I needed was a record of success for myself, a long term goal that I could point to. It was a long term goal that was something that I could not just decide to do the next day. To run the Boston Marathon you have to first qualify by running a previous marathon. You have to train, run and qualify for that marathon and then you have to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

Q: How did you do?

A: I did great. I joined a running club; and I trained with them, and I said this is my goal and I have never run like this before. I’ve done a little bit of running, a bit of jogging, but I was not an athlete. I’ve never joined that part of school; you know, I did the arts. So, I trained with this club. I said my goal is to qualify. Is this crazy? And they said: "Well, it is unusual but it is not crazy, it is possible." And that is all I needed, and I trained like crazy, I followed their advice, I followed a program. And I qualified for my first marathon. And, I qualified to run the Boston marathon, and I ran the Boston Marathon. I finished it in a little over three hours.
That was important because that whole process took a year and I knew that going back to school was not a short term thing either. It wasn’t simply taking a class; it was to represent a life style change for me and so did running the Boston Marathon and training for it. I had to change my diet, I had to change my sleep pattern, I had to make choices about how I was going to spend my free time so that I could do the training program, and for me it was just like a warm up. (Laughs.) For going back to school.

Q: It is very unusual but interesting. Very interesting.

A: And again, I had to say that this became evident to me why I was doing this. To go back to school slowly. I did not make this connection right away. But as I was doing it, I started to feel the changes in myself. And what I was trying to accomplish.

Q: Could you describe the changes?

A: Qualifying for the Boston Marathon gave me a lot of confidence that I had set this long term goal and made it. I knew that if I ran the Boston Marathon I could do anything.

Q: Wow. That would never occur to me.

A: You know, I know you are in the REAL program and I looked up about your story. We all get there, you know, however. That is such a very personal thing, your path there, but I know it is profound for everybody.

Q: In a different way.

A: In a different way, absolutely. Everybody makes sacrifices and has to fight themselves up to go back. So, to continue with the story, I made the decision that within a year's time I would be starting full time in an undergrad program. I wanted the experience of going full time and not part time because what I had felt was missing, was an experience. I hadn’t had the traditional undergrad experience. And that part was missing for me. I learned about how making the decision was more important than knowing how you are going to get something done. That would come after the decision was made. So, I had coffee with my executive director one January, and I said: "In a year's time I will be leaving this organization and going to school full time." Around this time also, I started to take a night course at U Mass. The next semester I took a class at the Harvard Extension School, and the next semester I took another, just to warm up for what I was about to do.

I started to look for programs for adults, but again I realized that I wanted the full-time experience. One program I looked at was at Lesley, which seemed very, very good for adults, but it wasn’t a traditional experience by any means. And that is what I wanted. And that is what was most appealing about Tufts. I could register with traditionally aged college students but still had the support of the REAL program to walk me through this. And when I got accepted, I was thrilled, absolutely thrilled.

Q: How did your friends, your family feel about your decision to go back to school?

A: For the most part, everybody was incredibly supportive. Some people were surprised and impressed that I was going back full time. Like, how was I going to do that financially? You know what a life style change that was going to be. I have to say that my partner was very inspirational in the process. When I first started to look at programs to go back to school, I was looking at programs that were less challenging than the program at Tufts and he told me: "You are smarter than that." And that was what inspired me to even apply to Tufts because I really hadn't formed that part of my consciousness that I could go to a school as good and as challenging and as reputable as Tufts. So it was somebody close to me who was saying you can do this. And, he was really supportive. My family was supportive. My parents were a little confused about my quitting the job to do it, but they were happy I went back to school.

Q: How was your first semester at Tufts? For every student the first semester is a little different and we all come with expectations, some get fulfilled, some don’t. How was it for you?

A: Well, my expectations were absolutely fulfilled for me. I was completely ready. But it was really challenging. I think that having the REAL program seminar was important. I was really keen to not feeling too out of place, to not becoming discouraged, because although I had been taking classes, you know, taking three classes at a time was new. I actually worked my first semester. I worked two part-time jobs at first. I stayed as a bookkeeper at the television station and I became a bookkeeper for another organization. These places were very flexible with me, but it was challenging to be working and going to school at the same time.

Q: How would you describe your interaction with regular undergraduate students?

A: It was great. I think that they were surprised by having someone a little bit older in the class. But I think that a lot of them, like working in group projects for example, they appreciated my work experience, my real world experience that I brought to things. So that was the contribution that I think they valued; and I really valued their (pause) I think their struggles at their age, at their stage of development allowed me to be in touch with a different generation in a way that I wasn’t necessarily in touch with. So, I think it was mutually beneficial. I have to say though that being a little bit older, and I am a night person, but undergrads are really night people and I think sometimes that was a little bit of a challenge because I was typically not working on my homework past 1am. That was kind of, that was counterproductive. There were a couple of times I pulled an all-nighter, but very rarely. And the undergrad group, you know, they would just say, "Let's get together at 11, how does that sound?" (Laughs.) And I would say, "OK, but you have me for exactly 1.5 to 2 hours." For me it was tough. So that was funny. Sometimes it was challenging because the traditional undergrads had other kinds of priorities, social priorities, that I did not have. So that was interesting. But all in all it was a good experience.

I thought that you would ask more about the years at Tufts. I actually took the opportunity to go abroad for a year.

Q: Where did you go?

A: I did the program in Spain.

Q: Oh, in Madrid?

A: Yes. I did it for the whole year. And part of the advantage doing that was because, you know, in the REAL program we all come in bringing a different number of credits, so we don’t really come in as a class, and we don’t really know our class, our graduating class, you know. One thing that really meant a lot to me was that I was going to meet the other juniors and develop relationships with other juniors. Even though they were juniors to me by a lot of years. (Laughs.) That on graduation day, I would have at least 25 other people that I could look to, we would take classes together, and I have that common experience with. So that meant a lot to me. And I had a great relationship with them. I was a buddy to a lot of them, but I was also kind of an older brother, I think. Lots of them talked to me that way about their problems with their host families or with each other. We would go on excursions together. I did have a lot of interaction with them, more so than I would have had I stayed in Medford. And I loved it. I absolutely loved it.

Q: How was your year abroad?

A: It was incredible. I had never been to Europe before and this is an incredible opportunity. I was able to travel and go to the major cities in Western Europe; and I got to learn a lot about Spain. I can’t say one bad thing about the Tufts in Madrid program. It’s so well done. It is well thought out, every detail has been worked out. They cut through the Spanish bureaucracy before you even get there. And it is a completely educational experience. And all the excursions have been very well thought out with experts telling you about the significance of everything you are seeing. It was an amazing learning opportunity. It changed the way I saw the world, it opened an opportunity for me, because actually as a result of having studied in Spain that year, I was able to go back the year after graduation as a Fulbright Scholar. So, it was a great experience.

Q: Was it hard for you to decide to go to Spain? Because when I think about myself, I suppose I would think about leaving my friends and family behind, to go for a year to a program which is created for people that are around 20 years old.

A: I think what you just asked were two different things. Leaving your family and friends for a year is one part, and then another part is about the way the program is designed. I will say that the program is designed so that anybody would benefit from it. The other part. That was a big decision. My partner and I decided that this was an incredible opportunity, a once in a lifetime opportunity. And in terms of leaving my friends, I have to be honest, with me going back to school, lots of my friendships were kind of on hold anyway because of the demanding schedule of being an undergrad at Tufts. And in some ways, that was a little bit less tough. But it was the absolutely right decision for me.

Q: You said that you went back to Spain? Through Tufts, or on your own?

A: During my junior year in Spain, the Dean of Undergraduate Education (Walter Swap) paid us a visit to talk about the Fulbright Program. And he gave a really convincing pitch as to the advantage of using your last couple of months in Spain to get your thoughts together in order maybe to do a Senior Thesis and apply for a Fulbright. And I thought wow. It really gave me pause, you know. I knew that I wanted to go to grad school and I knew if I successfully completed a Fulbright application that it could only boost my chances to get into the grad school I wanted to get into. And doing the senior thesis was the hardest thing, but I thought I better get practice in this kind of research and writing so whether I get the Fulbright or not doing a senior thesis is probably a good idea as well. So, I made some decisions about what I would do my research on and spent my last month in Spain gathering some resources both in terms of books for my senior thesis as well as people to contact for my Fulbright application. I spent a full semester focused on getting this Fulbright application prepared. In January of 2002 there was an excursion to Havana, and my senior thesis was related to the film industry, Spanish film industry. I was able to be part of the crew that went to Havana and did research in Cuba for my senior thesis as well.

Q: That is amazing.

A: It is amazing. Being at Tufts opened so many opportunities for me that I wouldn't have had if I had stayed at UMass or Harvard Extension, things that I would have never imagined. I always wanted to go to Cuba. I am Puerto Rican, I always wanted to compare the two islands. And so I went. I was supported by my advisor, I was supported by my professors. My advisor helped to set up appointments for me to meet people in Cuba. When I got back, I wrote my senior thesis, and the day after I presented it, the same day I presented my senior thesis, I got the letter from the Fulbright commission that I got my Fulbright grant and I was able to go back to Spain.

Q: I am amazed. Because not many REAL students opt to go abroad and become Fulbright Scholars, which is very prestigious. So, congratulations on that.

A: Thank you. There was another REAL student who got a Fulbright and went abroad the year I did. His name is Aaron, he went to Germany. He is a little younger than I am. But it is very difficult. I know a lot of my fellow REAL program mates couldn’t do it because of other obligations. I was very lucky to be able to just leave my apartment and know that I have a place to come back to. So, that all came from being at Tufts, from doing the best while I was there, staying open to everything I could. Like I had said earlier, I wanted the traditional undergrad experience, so once I walked in with that mentality, I went to lectures whenever I could, I just tried to take part in it as much as I could while still here, you know, do well and trying to keep up a family life and all the other stuff.

Q: I still haven't asked you about your major?

A: Oh, international relations.

Q: I would also like to ask you about your relationship with Tufts professors. How was it? Were they welcoming? Was it hard or easier to connect to them? How would you describe Tufts professors as REAL student?

A: I have to say that I had nothing but positive experiences with all my Tufts professors. I think that part of it has to do with the fact that, well, Tufts has really good professors. And you know I had an interest in learning. I took an active role in classes, but I found them all very supportive.

I also made it a point in the beginning of every semester to go to the office hours of my professors and let them know who I was, what I was doing, let them know that I was a REAL student because they didn’t always know. I let them know that this was meaningful to me and I think that contributed to the good relationship I had with my professors. We have different challenges as REAL students. That does not meant they should go easier on us, they shouldn't and they don't, but it means something different for us. I think they appreciate that sacrifice.

Q: Thank you for sharing that. I suppose my next question is: You graduated?

A: Oh, yeah. I graduated magna cum laude with thesis honors.

Q: Congratulations.

A: Well, thank you.

Q: What were your plans for after graduation? You said that you won the Fulbright Scholarship to go back to Spain.

A: I always had a graduate degree as a goal, even though getting my bachelor's was a very important goal for me and life changing. But I knew that I wanted a master's. And so in my senior year I had to decide whether I was going to be applying to grad school, or doing the Fulbright. Because I knew I could not do both, especially with also doing the regular course load.

Going to Spain on the Fulbright was an incredible year of even more opportunities opening to me. I was chosen to represent the Spanish Fulbrightees at the Western Europe Fulbright Convention, the conference that they have. So I was able to go to Berlin as part of the experience. It was amazing. I met other Fulbrightees, some of whom I am still in touch with. And then I came back after that year and looked for work.

Q: What did you find?

A: Currently I work at Harvard University at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and I manage events for the center. And I am taking a graduate course at the School of Education at Harvard. I plan to apply to that program and go into university administration.

Q: That is a demanding program.

A: (Laughs.) We are used to that. We are from Tufts. And I tell you my decision to go into university administration has everything to do with my experience at Tufts.

Q: How so?

A: Because, what I have been talking about all along are opportunities that were opened up for me; and that has a lot to do with the way Tufts is run. Dean Herbert is an incredible resource to the students. All the administrators there were nothing but helpful in terms of what I wanted to accomplish there. I want to be part of that, making opportunities, making sure that educational programs run well. In getting ready for this interview, I have been thinking a lot about that.

Q: Where do you see yourself in ten years?

A: I see myself as a high level administrator at a university. And I also think about part of my community, that part that looks at education in the community. I live in Cambridge. I might think about running for school committee, for example. That is in ten, fifteen years, and addressing these issues from the ground up.

Q: If you would meet a person who is thinking about going back to college or even just to start from scratch and is not sure how to do it, where to do it, if to do it, what would you tell that person?

A: Do it. I would absolutely encourage whoever it is. But at a time when they are ready. Because I know that I was in my 30s when I returned to school and I wasn’t ready to go back before that. If they were friends, I would try to listen to what their fears were, what their issues were and if it was fear, I would try to support their step.

Q: Some people don't event make that step, you know?

A: That is true. I think that is the thing I am most grateful for about Tufts. I started talking with Dean Herbert a year and a half before I even applied to the program. I got to Tufts because I was calling around to find the right program. Remember when I told you I was looking at night courses. Well, as you and I know now they don’t offer those kinds of classes at Tufts. But somebody on the phone was smart enough to connect me with a woman named Barbara who was an assistant to Dean Herbert at the time. She said, hold on, I will connect you, because I said something about taking classes as an adult. And Barbara was the first to tell me about the REAL program. And she said, Tufts does not provide continuing ed classes but we provide this. And would you like this information? And I had that in a folder for a year before I actually applied. And this is what makes me say that administration is such an important thing because things are run so tightly at Tufts. They could have said, oh no we don’t have continuing ed, good bye. Somebody actually took the extra step and connected me with someone who could help me.

Q: Is there something you would still like to add to this interview? Is there something I did not ask?

A: Just to summarize. My life really is different and better as a result of being able to go to Tufts. And not only is my life better but I do think that the people I come in touch with in my professional work and my personal life are also better off because of this. And this is for two reasons. One is my personal life, I just feel better about myself. I believe in what I can accomplish now in a way that I didn’t before. And in my professional life, I have a lot more to offer because of the experiences I had at Tufts.

Q: I see where you are coming from. Thank you.

A: You are welcome. Thank you for listening.