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Diving Deep: Akiesha Ortiz, HDP'17

Akiesha OrtizAkiesha Ortiz’s year at HGSE has been nothing short of surreal. “A dear friend/brother here recently said this quote that I am paraphrasing, ‘You are living the dream that you have always been,’” she says.

A lifelong educator, Ortiz was ready to make the jump from practice to policy, and found that the Child Advocacy strand of the Human Development and Psychology (HDP) Program was a perfect fit. “I was adamant that an experienced teacher needed to support, guide, and lead those who were constantly creating a multitude of perplexing mandates for my fellow colleagues and students nationwide,” she says.

But, in addition to Ortiz’s newfound policy knowledge, what will stick with her most from the school year will be her evolved mindset and a new way of being.

“For all of my life up until this point I have been private,” Ortiz explains. “I was severely worried about being able to socially connect and network with anyone affiliated with Harvard.” But her many peers and teachers, including Senior Lecturer Karen Mapp, Lecturer Betsy McAlister Groves, Assistant Director for Student Diversity and Inclusion Programs Tracie Jones, and Dean Jim Ryan, helped her open up, embrace, and truly share her master’s experience with those around her.

“It is almost comical,” says Ortiz. “Diving deep into your intrinsic understanding, facing and owning your introspective experiences, and gaining the tools to be a leader of change have helped me to see the beauty in this opportunity.”

“Akeisha has been an absolutely inspiring member of the HGSE community,” says Senior Lecturer Richard Weissbourd, faculty director of HDP. “Her enthusiasm for ideas, people, and causes are contagious. She is model of strength and resilience. She consistently promotes deeper thought and intellectual engagement. Her passion for social justice runs deep.”

Ortiz will be recognized with the Intellectual Contribution Award for Human Development and Psychology at Convocation on May 24. Here, she discusses his year at HGSE and her life in education.

What are your post-HGSE plans? Up until May 1 I had no idea what I was going to do. Though I came here for one purpose another passion has snuck up on my heart.

This entire year I have learned so much about the increase of punitive punishment for mostly students of color, the statistics that show 80 percent of students are taught by white educators while their classes are filled with students who have entirely different identities, fact-based knowledge about the brain, trauma, and so many other components of the educational system that need to be unpacked. With that information on top of a few other parts of my personal recipe, I have created a curriculum with the intention of focusing on lessons for teachers to use as they help students to understand their own mind and body, and identify their capacity to deal with emotional duress that can impact their daily lives, as well as providing supports for mental well-being.

It's amazing because I have never thought of myself as an entrepreneur, but with this evolving resource I wish to go into my own business to support, train, and develop educators and all adults who will guide [students]. This new found path and venture is beyond my own expectations, but I am looking forward to persevering with this new mission of mine.

What is something that you learned at HGSE that you will take with you throughout your career in education? My peers have helped me to recognize that it is not selfish to have true self-care — it's mandatory! If my mind, body, and heart is weak (and it will be for that is the nature of this game of service for others) how can I help others in my own distress?

What advice do you have for next year’s students going through your program? Allow your heart to be accessible to ideas and perspectives that may frighten you. It may be personal ideas that you have struggled with for a lifetime or viewpoints that you may disagree with. However, is something is too hard, possibly triggering, don't be afraid to find and talk with someone who can give you guidance.

If you could transport thing from HGSE to your next destination, what would it be? I will have to say, Gutman Café! I have experienced a lot of "cafeteria" food in my life, but there is nothing that I have tasted [at Gutman] isn't good. Besides, the people behind the food are so kind-hearted, cool, funny, and their hands are gifted!

Read about the other recipients of this year's Intellectual Contribution Award.