Olivia Ortega spent the summer between her junior and senior years crashing in the living room of a place she found on Craigslist in order to make interning at the immigration department of the International Rescue Committee in Oakland, California, a reality.
While many would have balked at such living arrangements, Ortega, who graduated this month and is working on campus through the summer, came away from the experience with only positives.
Through her internship that summer, she navigated the extensive and complicated processes involved with bringing Central American child refugees to the United States to reunite them with their parents.
“A standout moment for me—actually it happened after I left the organization—was when my first group of kids got to come over to the U.S.,” Ortega said. “To get the news and the pictures that the kids had been reunited with their parents just made the entire stressful summer worth it. It made every ounce of work worth it, even if just one of the families I had worked with got to be reunited with their kids.”
Now, Ortega, who graduated with degrees in international studies, Spanish and political science (with a public policy minor), will make her mark on Cleveland. As part of the inaugural Cleveland Foundation Public Service Fellows cohort, she will tackle some of the city’s most pressing concerns with the Cleveland City Council.
The program, funded and hosted by the Cleveland Foundation, matched nine fellows from across the country with six Greater Cleveland public sector and nonprofit agencies. Each of the fellows—all 2014, 2015 or 2016 college graduates—will begin the yearlong, paid fellowships in the fall.
Ortega, who remains on campus this summer working in the Continuing Medical Education Office, will address city council’s new “civitism” agenda, which includes Cleveland’s lead poisoning and infant mortality rate problems.
“These are issues that have been solved around the country,” Ortega said. “With infant mortality, we know what works for it already—we just have to figure out how best to implement it in Cleveland.”
Given that the program is in its first year, there is flexibility surrounding what her exact responsibilities will be—which, Ortega said, is exciting.
“I would love to design a role for myself and make it as meaningful and impactful as it can be,” she said, noting that she expects to spend time conducting research and connecting with community organizations.
“I’ve always seen the world and the problems that we face in a social perspective,” she said. “A lot of people at this university see it in a physical perspective—how we can fix things in an engineering or medical way—but I’ve always seen it in a social way—the way people interact, the way governments interact—and that’s what really interests me.
Get to know what Ortega with this summer’s new five questions.
1. What’s the best way to spend a summer day in Cleveland?
My perfect day in Cleveland would be going on a run with my friends, and then having a picnic by Wade Lagoon and spending hours there talking, eating and not having any cares in the world. And it has to be sunny.
2. What motivates you to work hard?
I come from a pretty modest background and family, and growing up, I knew I didn’t want “future me” to have to worry about the same things. I really want to be able to be able to provide for my parents one day, and my extended family as well because they’ve all been so instrumental in me getting through school. I’m also motivated by background because of the problems I saw growing up in the community that raised me—and I think it’s the inherent reason why I think about the world the way I do. It has been a huge driving factor in me wanting to be a change maker in my community one day.
3. Who is your favorite character from a book, TV show or movie?
Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. It’s my favorite book. Her character is the embodiment of what I strive to be like. She is unapologetically herself and she is quick-witted, and she never lets her peers, her family or those around her sway her passions. She’s also very sassy.
4. What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever done?
I got this internship last summer in the San Francisco Bay Area and I didn’t know a soul in that area. It was very last-minute. I was studying abroad [in Salamanca, Spain] at the time, so I had about a week or two to prepare to go to California. So I just found a place on Craigslist, flew out there, didn’t know anyone and I ended up living in a living room for three months. But it turned out to be a really wonderful experience. People kept telling me I was crazy and I was like, “Maybe, but it’s working out, so…”
I came away with some of the best friends I’ve ever had. I met some amazing people over there.
5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?
What originally drew me to CWRU was the people, and what kept me here and kept me grounded were the friends I made. My friends are the best friends I could have in the entire world. I love that they are from such different places than I am, but we have such similar characters and work ethics. They push me to be the best person I can be in every sense. I can’t imagine me going anywhere else because I wouldn’t have made the friends I made here.