Yvonne Ortiz poses in front of the Columbia Mailman Allan Rosenfield Building. Photo: Lucas Hoeffel.

Community First: Yvonne Ortiz’s Vision for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

August 31, 2023

As a first-generation college student in the 1990s, Yvonne Ortiz felt like an outsider. Her classmates at New York University were largely wealthy and white; she was from a working-class Puerto Rican household in the Bronx and worked three jobs to pay for her books. “The only people who looked like me were the people cleaning the residence halls,” she says. Ortiz, who is Columbia Mailman’s new Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, related to the NYU campus staff, given her modest beginnings.

One day, after getting a failing grade on a math exam, Ortiz opened up to a cafeteria worker, telling him she was ready to transfer. Crucially, he convinced her to find support in student services. “I knew that I was drowning, and I didn't get help proactively because I was afraid and ashamed to ask for help,” she recalls. When a student struggles, we shouldn’t point a finger at them or at the communities they come from, she explains. Instead, we need to build an inclusive institution that doesn’t take anyone for granted, including all of its staff. “Everyone across the institution can help students thrive,” she says. “We all have a role to play.”

Ortiz, who joined the School in August, leads a robust portfolio of DEI activities, including the FORWARD (Fighting Oppression, Racism and White Supremacy through Action, Research and Discourse) initiative to accelerate the School’s transformation into an antiracist, multicultural, and fully inclusive institution. She leads two mentorship programs for BIPOC and first-generation students—MOSAIC and RISE—and advises on the School’s pathway programs. Her activities aim to foster belonging across the Mailman community and offering support to anyone who needs it, “when they are experiencing discrimination, or harassment, or about something they just need someone to help them process,” she says.

“Yvonne Ortiz brings a resolute commitment to building diverse, equitable, and inclusive communities, fortified by a keen sense of the importance of this work to the success of our students and our School,” says Michael Joseph, Vice Dean for Education and co-chair of the search committee for the DEI role. “She is beloved by generations of students who have thrived under her tutelage and gone on to achieve great things.”

After graduating from NYU, Ortiz went on to earn a Master of Education from the College of Education at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, after which she was offered the position as Special Assistant for Multicultural Affairs at College of the Holy Cross. Since then she has had student affairs roles at Emory, the University of Georgia, and most recently, as the inaugural director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the Rowan-Virtua School of Osteopathic Medicine. She has also coached diverse higher education institutions in how to promote greater student success. “When thinking about who is successful at a university and who is not as well as the conditions necessary for everyone’s success, that is DEI work,” she explains. 

Among her many activities, Ortiz worked with the United Negro College Fund to draft a statement for HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) to creating more affirming environments for their LGBTQ+ students. Throughout her career, she has been “the person that people felt was trustworthy and they could talk to,” and is unfazed by student protest, going so far as to offer sit-in participants sandwiches. Back when she was an NYU undergrad, she joined in sit-ins herself, pushing for faculty and curricular diversity. 

Over the last 30 years, Ortiz has seen DEI work evolve, as federal guidance on Title IX has expanded protections against campus sexual harassment and assault and discrimination, and on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Meanwhile, identity groups of all stripes have won greater recognition, on and off campuses. Of course, progress hasn’t been steady: take a recent spate of anti-trans legislation and the Supreme Court ruling overturning affirmative action in higher education admissions. From Ortiz’s standpoint, DEI is a big tent with identity groups that include disability, neurodivergence, LGBTQIA+, and more, with multiple intersections. “We can talk about antisemitism, and anti-Muslim violence, and anti-Asian violence, and LGBTQ+ rights, and still be committed to anti-racism, because we know that those systems of oppression are connected,” she says. “They're not the same, but they're connected.”

According to Ortiz, an institution must hold a mirror up to itself and continually reaffirm its values, asking, “What is it that we need to do so that all people feel connected to our mission?  What are the conditions we can create so all people feel respected and valued and come to work being their whole authentic selves?" Emphasis on all. She relates the story of a college president who was confronted by students who were outraged when custodians removed posters advertising a lesbian and trans student organization—an action the students incorrectly assumed came from leadership. The college president was taken aback, asking herself how students could believe she wanted the posters removed. Her takeaway: people don't know you're an ally unless you show them. “We need to show students and our entire community what we stand for through our actions,” she says.

Looking ahead, Ortiz says she is excited to be at Columbia Mailman where she can make an impact with current and future practitioners who are making a positive impact on health and well-being. As a field, public health is oriented toward achieving DEI goals. “The need for health equity and justice is not a case I have to make with this group,” she says. Ortiz also enjoys being back in New York City, not far from the Bronx neighborhood where she grew up. Speaking about the neighborhood and the Columbia Mailman community, she says, “These are my people.”