Yolanda and Dionicio Ortiz never had the chance to attend college. But the couple, who came to the U.S. from Guatemala and Mexico, respectively, instilled the value of education in their four children, encouraging them to work hard and dream big.
Their youngest daughter, Yesenia, graduated from Harvard last year, following her sister, Lucerito Ortiz ’10, as the second in the family to complete studies at the College. Yesenia concentrated in women, gender, and sexuality, and has started a career in the nonprofit sector, currently working with marginalized communities in Latin America.
Yesenia credits the University’s Financial Aid Initiative for making Harvard welcoming to students of all economic backgrounds. More than half of undergrads receive financial aid, and students whose families earn less than $65,000 pay nothing.
“There are so many different experiences, dynamics, and identities represented at Harvard that historically were not there. It can be these unique points of view that challenge Harvard to grow,” said Yesenia.
Harvard students hail from all 50 states, and more than 100 countries, reflecting a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. First-generations students make up 15 percent of undergrads. Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William Fitzsimmons was a first-generation student when he graduated in 1967. Harvard “is lucky to have such students as Yesenia,” he said.
“First-generation students provide constant lessons in perseverance to fellow students, and are reminders that talent is universal, but opportunity is not,” he said.
In her time on campus Yesenia forged meaningful friendships with students of similar and not-so-similar backgrounds. Her experiences in and out of the classroom affirmed her belief in the importance of education for social impact. Her decision to work in nonprofits stemmed from a desire to help others overcome obstacles like those her parents faced.
“I hope I can truly and firmly say that I’ve done everything I can to minimize what I consider unnecessary and unjust struggle, and to impact and better the lived experiences of others,” she said.
Her mother added: “It’s very hard, especially for Latin Americans, as we are used to being together and having our children with us. But we shouldn’t clip their wings. You have to let them fly so they can achieve a better future for themselves.”