When Maria Ortega first heard herself described as Maria from Brown, she was upset because she didn’t think she fit in here. “My first year was a huge shock,” she says. As a first-generation, low-income Latina student, she couldn’t ask her mother how she should prepare for graduate school and she didn’t have graduate role models. “This place really scared me,” she adds. “I had imposter syndrome,” referring to a sense of inadequacy despite success. Now, the third-year doctoral student in Sociology is a resource for other students at Brown University’s First-Generation College and Low-Income Student Center (FLiCenter), which opened in September.
As the graduate student coordinator, Ortega says she supervises undergraduate coordinators on community building, helps to manage the center, and builds graduate FLi community. “I embody all identities [at the Center]: low-income, first generation, and previously undocumented,” she says.
Ortega came to Brown after receiving a B.A. in Sociology and Political Science from California State University, Fresno. Her mother brought Maria and her sister to California’s agriculturally rich Central Valley, moving the family from Mexico in 1997.
While her mother did not have cultural capital, she is the source of Ortega’s motivation. “I honor her sacrifice,” she says.
Community helped her to make the transition to being a graduate student at Brown. It was hard to believe in my knowledge and skills, she explains, but talking, venting, support, information and affirmation made the difference: “I thought I was the only one having trouble getting through readings, but others had the same struggle.”
Now, she helps to build that sense of belonging. “The Center provides community. We are affirmed and have a home away from home,” she says, noting how important that is for students who cannot afford to travel home often.
Ricky Gresh, director for campus life projects in the Office of the Vice President of Campus Life and Student Services, calls Maria "critical to the functioning of Brown's newest center -- anchoring the presence of staff, coordinating daily operations, and building a sense of community within the space."
Maria finds it empowering to be a role model. “I’m still here and you can do this too,” she tells students. They thank me for sharing my story and that connection is incredibly heartwarming, she adds.
And Maria from Brown? Ortega is starting to own the label. “It doesn’t upset me now. Brown looks like me.”
Article by Beverly Larson