A Tribute to Dr. Reyes Ortega

The above 13-minute video features an interview with Dr. Reyes Ortega about his work with the Puente program at Sierra College and his legacy as he enters into retirement. After the interview in the video, two former students share personal tributes. In the written article below, other former students pay tribute to their transformative teacher and offer advice to future students.

I. Personal Tribute from Gabriela Takahashi

My name is Gabriela Takahashi.  I was in the 2014-2015 Puente Program class and I graduated from Sierra College in 2016.  I transferred to UC Berkeley in 2017 and graduated with a BA in Ethnic Studies in 2018. Today, I work as a Legal Assistant at Steyer Lowenthal Boodrookas Alvarez & Smith, LLP in San Francisco.

My time at Sierra College defined who I am today because of Dr. Ortega.  My first time meeting him was during the first day for the Puente Program college readiness course. I came in late and as I tried to sneak into one of the chairs in the back he stops and says,

“Latinos do not sit in the back, they sit in the front,” and he points to the desk right in front of his podium.

I smiled and walked over to the desk and before sitting down he made me introduce myself to the class and explain why I was late. After my brief introduction and explanation of my tardiness, he told me I would have to make it up by attending the Puente Club meeting the following Monday afternoon.  I had the time to attend the meeting because of the way Dr. Ortega sets the schedule for his students.  He always left an hour space for the Puente Club meetings.

graduation picture of Dr Ortega and Takahashi
Dr. Ortega and Gabriela Takahashi, photo provided by author.

I attended the meeting the following Monday. Again, I tried to sneak in and sit in the back corner near the door because I planned on leaving early to go home.  Yet again, he caught me trying to sneak in and he once again put me on the spot to introduce myself to the rest of the club.  At that moment, I knew I was not going to be able to leave early undetected.

At some point during the meeting, the club officers asked if anyone could attend the ASSC meeting later that week.  Without hesitation, Dr. Ortega volunteered myself to go.  This time I pushed back and said I would have to work and he pushed back asking what time my shift started, I said “5pm” and he said “well, you can make the first hour and then leave for work” and he offered me some extra credit points.  I was left with no other option.

Thursday came around and I was dreading going to the ASSC meeting.  However, when I got there, I was fascinated by the decorum and production of the senate meeting.  I also saw a good amount of folks from the Puente Club meeting were senators.  I stayed the full two hours.  I would say from that moment the rest is history.

I became an active member in the Puente Club and regularly attended ASSC meetings.  My Puente class voted me to be one of the Puente Program Student Ambassadors, which opened doors to more leadership opportunities. I eventually ran for the Puente Club Vice-President seat and ASSC Senator seat for the following academic year and I won!

Dr. Reyes Ortega, Dr. Kathryn Blackmer Reyes, Dr. Winsome Jackson, Dr. Julia Curry-Rodriguez, Catherine Morris, and Dr. Susan Lucyga. Photo provided by Dr. Ortega.

The title I hold in highest regards and close to my heart was being a student advisor on the Equity Committee.  Here, I was recruited to be on the Student Equity Center sub-committee (now the Student Engagement Centers) with Dr. Ortega, Dr. Winsome Jackson, and Susan Lucyga.  I spent countless hours before and after class and even some weekends dedicated to this committee.  This is where Dr. Ortega became not only my professor, but my mentor and friend.

Throughout my life, I have been criticized for being too aggressive and stubborn, however, for the first time someone saw these traits as leadership qualities, and that was Dr. Ortega.

He saw the brilliance in me that I could not see for myself. He taught me how to be diplomatic and patient when navigating the bureaucracy of not only Sierra College, but the world around me.  He helped me find my voice in advocacy and I believe I would not have been able to get into a UC if it was not for him.

Dr. Ortega has shown me genuine love and dedication and taught me lifelong lessons that I reflect on almost daily. He is an asset to Sierra College, my life, and the lives of others he’s touched.  Although he says he will be retiring, I know he will continue to champion for underrepresented students and help them find their excellence the way he helped me. I am forever grateful.

II. Personal Tribute from Manuel Vazquez

My name is Manuel Vazquez, I am currently finishing my last class at Sierra online. And I am a transfer student at Sonoma State University. I am also a current Puente club member, a former Club Treasurer, and was
also part of the Puente program.

Like Dr. Ortega told my class and all the Puentistas, “Once a Puentista, always a Puentista!”

Writing this tribute is not enough for what Dr. Ortega did for me. After High School, I had the dream to go off and play College Soccer. However, Senior Year I fractured my ankle and my college dreams where crushed. I personally had no idea of what I was going to do that fall, since I did not apply to any other colleges my Senior Year.

Manuel Vasquez, photo provided by author.

That summer after graduation and analyzing local community colleges, I heard about the Puente program and applied to continue my education. Applying to Puente was one of the best choices I could have ever made. After being accepted into the Puente program and attending the “Puente Motivational Conference” at Sonoma State, I knew I made the correct choice. As the semester progressed and after multiple majors, I am transferring to Sonoma.

I built a personal connection with Dr. Ortega within the first year and he helped me land an internship with Intel. And a couple of semesters later he helped me land an online internship with NASA. After completing the internship he started helping me grow professionally and update my resume after the internship and follow up on all my classes.

Dr. Ortega was a loving, caring, honest, trustworthy, counselor, and “family,” always trying to find a mentor to help you get into the field. However, I personally believe he was my mentor always checking up after my exams, making sure I was staying up to par in all my classes. He was also there when I hit the lowest in my college career and built a strong connection to trust him and be vulnerable, up to point where he mentioned I reminded him of himself when he was in college.

A major advice to future Puentistas, is do not take anything for granted and do not push anything off if you can do it now. Also, I tell future Puentistas to get involved with the Puente club and the program because there are many opportunities to build a “family” with other Puentistas. Within the family you also build a strong connection and support. Do not be afraid of your dreams, if you are not afraid of your dreams they are not big

Do not be afraid to ask for help. Do not be afraid to lend out a hand to the community. Our goal is to come back as a leader for future generations of Puentistas. Last but not least, make yourself available and make yourself big and do not be afraid to make connections because, you never know, that connection may be a loved one, a family member, future mentor, or even an employer. Si se puede!

III. Personal Tribute from Meiby Ramos

My name is Meiby Ramos. I was in the Puente Program in 2013-2014. Then I became the secretary of the Puente Club in 2014-2015. I graduated in December 2018 from California State University, Sacramento with a bachelor’s degree in Biological Science, concentration Clinical Lab Science. I am currently in a MA, Stem Cell Program at California State University, Sacramento.

photo of Meiby Ramos
Meiby Ramos, photo provided by author.

Dr. Ortega was a great mentor and advisor to me during my time at Sierra College. He was the first Latino, that I met, who had a PhD. One of the things that are present with me today was his encouragement for Latinos to pursue higher education and break the boundaries for better representation in all aspects of society.

As I continue my education, he continues to check in with me and see how I am doing. I am thankful for everything he did and all that he keeps doing for me. I thank Dr. Ortega for all the encouragement and guidance that he provided for me. I really appreciate it. Wish him the best. Once a Puentista, always a Puentista. Si Se Puede!

IV. Personal Tribute from Edgar Reyes

My name is Edgar Reyes, I currently attend Chico State University. Thanks to the influence of Dr. Ortega, I am now working on my bachelor’s degree in Communication, Media Arts.

While I know his title of “doctor” isn’t that of a medical field, he has done what a doctor does, save lives.

I don’t know whether Dr. Ortega knows the impact he has had for Puentistas across the board. His impact has moved many, including myself. He inspires, educates, mentors and overall befriends a lot of students on campus. His influence on one student is all it took to get me involved.

Edgar Reyes portrait
Edgar Reyes, photo provided by author.

From there I became an active club member. The Puente Club quickly became a family. Within that family, I learned from my peers and soon later ran to be President for the following year. I’ve learned to be a team player and a leader. One person has the ability to influence so many, whether I turn out to be a good leader or not, I learned a lot.

My Puente family, my friends, still carry on the torch today. We aren’t the number one club for no reason. We want to make Dr. Ortega proud.

photo of Puente club
Puente club, photo provided by Edgar Reyes.

If it wasn’t for his influence, his leadership, his engagement, I might’ve dropped a long time ago. I wouldn’t be where I am today.

He created a support system where many of us First- Generations can fulfill the American Dream; a task our parents left to us, to be better than where we were.

All I have left to say is, thank you, Dr. Ortega because of you, I continue to strive forward. I only hope I can do what you have done for me and pay it forward. Words cannot describe the respect and gratitude I have for you. Thank you for your hard work.

V. Personal Tribute from Obed Vejar

My name is Obed Vejar. I am currently working at Jacobs Engineering in Sacramento, CA as part of the Legacy CH2M Structural Engineering Design group. I graduated as a proud Puentista in 2018 with degrees in Architectural/Civil and Mechanical/Civil as well as three certificates in my major, while maintaining “Honors” as a student.

Obed Vejar at work, photo provided by author.

My inspiration to be more than I could be came from the people before me that paved the way to a great education.

Dr. Ortega was one of those great people and good role model for us all during our time at Sierra College. He inspired me as a student to believe in myself and to think big. Dr. Ortega believed in all of us before we started believing in ourselves and that’s a fact.

He instilled confidence in our Puente classes with dedication, respect and high standards. He prepared us for the beginning of our career paths no matter the major. Those ingredients later during the semester transformed into many great college careers being accomplished by First-Generation students: Students that did not have someone to be inspired by or to keep their head focused in the books during each semester. He was the best counselor and mentor I had in my time at Sierra College.

Dr. Ortega and Obed Vejar, photo provided by author.

Dr. Ortega meant so much, not just to me but to the entire Hispanic and minority community at Sierra College. Si Se Puede!

Video Recorded, Final Cut Edited, and Music by Eric Pacheco | Written by Gabriela Takahashi, Manuel Vasquez, Meiby Ramos, Edgar Reyes, and Obed Vejar

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