Elizabeth Ortiz, Communication
As A Communication Professor And An Alumna, Elizabeth Ortiz '01 Examines Images In The Media And Redefines Her Own Ideas Of Success.
Elizabeth Ortiz '01 was merely eight years old when she made her first startling discovery — one that would give way to a life-long fascination with the media and eventually launch her on a path leading directly to Cedar Crest College.
Visiting the home of a good friend, Ortiz, who is of Puerto Rican, German and Irish descent, found herself in a conversation that focused on their cultural backgrounds. She was stunned by the reaction when she told them she was Latina.
"I had always identified myself as Latina, but when I told people I was Puerto Rican they would say – ‘yes, but you're not like them'," she said still seeming rather stunned by her friends' admission. "It became pretty clear that they had very little real-life exposure to Latinos — that virtually all of their ideas about Latinos had to come from somewhere else."
It took some time, but as Ortiz matured, she began to realize that a major source of cultural misinformation was coming from television and other media.
"Stereotypes were all that some of these people knew. But when we get all our impressions through the media, it speaks to how powerful the media can be," says Ortiz. "I really started to look at the media and realized there were few people I identified with – and as a child that is a difficult thing. I believe you look to media to see people you can connect with, people who are like you. Well, I didn't find it on television, and as a child I watched a lot of television …"
Today, Ortiz has less time for television. Entering her sixth year as an assistant professor in the College's communication program – the same program she graduated from only seven years ago – Ortiz has a full plate. She is balancing her role as a professor, a wife, a new mother, and, as a successful businesswoman who helps her husband, chef Adam Gangewere, run their own Mexican restaurant, Cactus Blue, in nearby Bethlehem. But her fascination with images in the media — particularly images of women and people of color — has remained with her over the years and, in fact, has become a strong influence in her teaching, her research interests, and her work in the community.
A Reality Check
By the time Ortiz reached high school, she was well aware that the images she was seeing on television, in magazines and in movies did not match the reality she saw every day. She enrolled at Cedar Crest College as a student in the communication program and began to test and flesh out her theories about how the media was impacting society's perceptions of race and gender.
According to Ortiz, Cedar Crest "tested her impressions and ideas and broadened her view." She became enthralled with her studies, devouring information she gained in courses on media literacy, mass media and new media. She started to explore the history of other ethnic and cultural groups in the United States and realized that what she was seeing in the present day had deep roots.
"I learned that the misrepresentation of Latinos is not unique. New immigrants faced similar problems when they came to this country in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The African American population has long felt the same misrepresentation and now, of course, you continue to see it with Latinos and Arab Americans," said Ortiz. "But you have to understand history, you have to know where we were to understand where we are. So many young women take for granted the right they have to vote. For so much of the history of this country, rich white men have held most of the political power, and with that, the ability to influence their presentation in the media."
As part of her study at Cedar Crest, Ortiz headed back to her high school alma mater, William Allen High School, an inner-city school that has seen an influx of students of color over the last two decades. She began conversations with students at the school about the media and soon found they too had strong opinions about their lack of representation on television and elsewhere.
"They were so eloquent in their descriptions and just angry – or perhaps, more accurately, passionate – as passionate as I was about it when I was their age," says Ortiz who used the information gained there in her senior research project. "They felt powerless to change these perceptions. And that's something we talk about a lot in my classes. I keep trying to focus my students on ways that they can make changes. If you feel powerless, you tend to give up. You tend to get overwhelmed. So today, I question my students and have them answer the question, ‘how can I have an influence?' I try to get them to realize that change starts with one person … and that they can be THE one."
Ortiz's research project opened doors — specifically to Syracuse University's highly competitive, and equally highly regarded media studies program — where she received a full graduate assistantship. Armed with what she learned at Cedar Crest, Ortiz continued her research at Syracuse – focusing on perceptions of race and gender in primetime television. She conducted a survey to determine how people saw characters on primetime television shows – specifically African American, Asian and Latino characters. Not surprisingly, the respondents saw holes in their representation and most could not name a single character in prime time that represented the later two groups. The ones that were singled out were, as Ortiz notes, ‘tired stereotypes.'
The Road Winds Home
In the summer of 2003, Ortiz was invited back to her alma mater to discuss her master's thesis research. The department was planning a one-day journalism workshop and had invited Keith Woods, a renowned writer and newspaper editor from the Poynter Institute whom has written extensively on the subject of race, diversity and the media, to be the keynote speaker. Ortiz says she was honored to be on the same bill. But she never expected what came next — that this invitation to present her research would lead to a full-time position in a program where she had just recently been one of its star students. A professor in the program had opted to move with her family to California, and since it was already July, the College asked Ortiz to cover her classes. After a national search, Ortiz, with her newly minted degree from Syracuse, remained the top candidate and she took on the role permanently.
"I was excited to come back, because this is home to me," says Ortiz. "It really is. And I always tell students that I am not only a Cedar Crest graduate, but if I had to do it all over again, I would definitely choose Cedar Crest. I am glad that I had a larger graduate school experience, but the connections and the experiences I made at Cedar Crest cannot be replicated anywhere else."
Ortiz points to her teaching experiences at Syracuse where she worked with a freshmen introductory class of 90 students. She said she knew few of their names and interests and found it difficult to make the one-on-one connection she felt she had as a Cedar Crest student.
"The first few weeks with students and faculty are so important. In fact, I find that at Cedar Crest that period of time is all about helping guide students. And here there are so many places for them to go – they have opportunities to do things they can't do elsewhere as new students. They can work on the newspaper, program their own radio show, or be published in the literary magazine starting in their first year. There are very few other places that offer this kind of opportunity," she says.
Outside her classroom, Ortiz guides her students as faculty advisor to the student newspaper, The Crestiad — a role she found herself unexpectedly taking on when she returned to Cedar Crest. After a summer crash course in student newspaper advising, Ortiz showed up at the first Crestiad meeting and was happily confronted by a new group of eager students — mostly freshmen — who were energetic, enthusiastic, and armed with a goal.
"They told me flat out that by the time they graduated, that this paper, one that had recently been published only sporadically, would be published weekly. And you know what? They did just that!" she says. "This group of students was able to drive themselves and their passion for journalism drove me. As an advisor, I don't dictate what they cover or what they don't. I don't see the paper before it is published and I serve strictly as a resource. But that's what's so powerful for them, because this is not just a newspaper that students work on, but rather it is a student-run paper. They are practicing future skills with very little interference. It shows how much the College values academic freedom and press freedom. "
The students' dedication also led to national acclaim, with The Crestiad winning multiple awards form the American Scholastic Press (including a coveted Special Merit Prize) and three prestigious awards from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. Ortiz says the latter awards were particularly impressive, since professional, working journalists from throughout the state evaluate each school's submission and the judging process pits very large schools with renowned journalism programs against small colleges like Cedar Crest.
"The students are very dedicated and very passionate and it pays off," says Ortiz. "And this drive is unique to Cedar Crest because, unlike a lot of other schools with large journalism programs, these young women are not receiving special scholarships to write for the paper. They are doing this from their hearts. In fact, most will not become journalists after graduation. But while they are here they want to help document Cedar Crest's history — it is their passion."
Finding Her Passion
While her student journalists energize Ortiz, her deeper passion is something that has long been held in high regard within the College's core mission — service to community. Since returning to Cedar Crest, Ortiz said she most looks forward to serving as one of the teachers in the College's required service learning course, "The Ethical Life." The course provides students the opportunity to study the major theories of ethics and social justice, and to explore their own values and beliefs in the context of an individual's responsibility to her community. Students spend one hour per week in class, discussing personal values, ethical theories, and theories of community and social justice; and then spend the equivalent of two hours per week (28 hours over the course of the semester) in a community partnership placement — providing a needed service to the community.
"It goes far beyond what a typical class can do. It goes way beyond just volunteering, it really is service learning and many of the students continue to work with their social agencies even after the assignment is completed," says Ortiz, who volunteers her own time to the Allentown Boys' and Girls' Club as well as the Hispanic American League of Artists. "When I go out into the community they rave to me about our Cedar Crest students and that really excites me. As a faculty member who is also an alumna, I have a true sense of pride when our students succeed."
Ortiz, however, is rewriting, or perhaps, more accurately, redefining what it means to be a success. With few role models in the media to turn to as a child, Ortiz has blazed her own path and looks for ways to tie her life experiences in to the work she does in the classroom and in her leadership roles on campus.
"Finding a good work-life balance is definitely a challenge, because I am passionate about my job. I love being here at Cedar Crest. I love working with students and seeing them learn, change and develop. I think I am lucky, because I don't have to separate my work and personal life. My experience as a woman and as a mother ties me into both my students' current and future situations," says Ortiz. "I don't have to leave my life out of my work, because my roles as mother and business woman have relevance to what I do in the classroom."
Some of the ties between Ortiz's outside interests have more direct connections to the College. Currently, assistant professor of marketing, Arlene Peltola's service marketing class is working with Ortiz and her husband on a marketing plan for their restaurant. At this writing, they were scheduled to make a formal presentation on their marketing plan sometime in December. In addition, Ortiz tries to melt her family restaurant into the College community by offering discounts during Hispanic American Heritage Month or donating gift cards to Alumnae fundraising events. She even opened the doors of her restaurant to a successful alumnae-networking event for local young alumnae.
"Coming back to Cedar Crest College as a faculty member has given me more of an understanding of how much the faculty do for students. Plus, coming in as a new faculty member – now six years ago – and having completely new courses to teach – plus forging new relationships, establishing the newspaper etc. — there was so much to do and it was a balancing act. The birth of our daughter Eva last June, the restaurant with my husband Adam, and my work in the community, have all added to the struggle to achieve balance, but also greatly enhanced my experience. So, as with most women,I wish there were more hours in the day," says Ortiz.
The large, circular path that led Ortiz back to Cedar Crest has, more than anything, strengthened her connection to her Cedar Crest roots. Even now, as she helps to chart the course for her family's restaurant and thinks about her daughter's future, Cedar Crest is on her mind.
"It is unique that I have a little girl, because I already view her as I see our Cedar Crest women. I wonder how will she be as a leader? How will she be engaged in the community? All this at the same time that I wonder when she will learn to tie her shoes," says Ortiz. "But since I had my daughter, I have been able to show my students that women have a lot of challenges, but also, a lot of opportunities to succeed. They will sometime ask how to balance it all, but just by looking at the students, I have come to realize that this is just what Cedar Crest women do. They have double majors, two minors, are presidents of three clubs … they are immersed on campus and in the community and they continue to do it after graduation. That is evidence that we are doing something right. The leadership is inherent."
Last Updated: 4/1/09