When Kaylee Ortega came to CU Boulder from Denver's Abraham Lincoln High School, it was a bit of a culture shock. She struggled at first to find her place—like so many students do.
But the 22-year-old found her way to various student organizations and met people who shared her interests in social justice, healthcare and women’s issues. She sought out mentors, hands-on experiences and research. She worked hard and stood out to her professors.
Because of this, Ortega graduates with honors, a double major in ethnic studies and integrative physiology, a Jacob Van Ek Award and a public health certificate. She will begin work toward a master’s degree in public health at CU Anschutz in the fall.
"Initially, I had a very hard-headed mindset of becoming a doctor," Ortega said. "I wanted to be the first doctor in my family. I wanted to witness a woman of color who was a doctor."
But a few ethnic studies courses with an emphasis on social justice and spending her junior year abroad in Costa Rica caused her to course correct.
"I always like science and that part of me is still there, but my niche is really focused on the connection between science and advocacy."
Working with underrepresented populations also comes from Ortega’s family background. Her parents were born in Puebla, Mexico, and came to the United States in search of a better life not only for themselves but for their children.
Ortega learned at an early age that getting an education was a privilege she wanted to take advantage of, especially since her parents had only received a grade school education. Ortega’s two older sisters were great role models: Both received bachelor’s degrees and proved to Ortega it was possible.
Embracing research as an undergrad
Ortega dove into her studies, winning a competitive Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program grant to do a thesis on the impact of microaggressions on the mental health of Latinx college students.
Her thesis idea impressed ethnic studies Professor Joanne Belknap.
"I truly believe that this honors [thesis] will be a publishable article given the growing number of Latina/o college students, the increasing acknowledgement and concern regarding the retention of college students of color, and the quest to identify and address the phenomenon of racial microaggressions," Belknap wrote in a letter nominating Ortega for the Van Ek award.
With the help of mentors like Belknap, Ortega took advantage of opportunities that helped her succeed. Before she even came to campus she received support wading through the complexity of college applications from the Denver Scholarship Foundation.
Once here, she joined AVID, a nationwide program designed to provide extra academic support for first-generation college-bound high school students who show promise in their academic careers. She also participated in TriO Student Support Services on campus.
She joined UMAS y MEChA de CU Boulder. M.E.Ch.A. was started nationwide in the late 1960s to unite various Chicana/Chicano student organizations. She became involved with Pi Lambda Chi, an organization whose mission is to create a strong sisterhood and education support network for women on college campuses through an emphasis in teaching Latino culture and history. She interned at the Women’s Resource Center.
Ortega’s path of growth and learning will continue in perhaps unexpected ways; but her goals—as outlined in her Van Ek application—are clear.
"As part of a marginalized community myself I plan to use the knowledge I’ve gained over the years to share with others back home and assist community members towards the common goals of health equity."