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Week of 19 November 1999

Vol. III, No. 15

Feature Article

A MED job as springboard

Dreams and responsibilities -- the saga of a single mother

By Hope Green

Amparo Ortiz has always been determined to escape the poverty into which she was born. She aimed to attend college, find a steady job, and if all went according to plan, buy a house with a patch of green on a quiet street.

That she might launch her escape at the Boston University School of Medicine, a stone's throw from the Cathedral Project apartment complex where she grew up, never crossed her mind. "I used to pass by the campus all the time," says Ortiz, who works in the genetics program office for Lindsay Farrer, MED professor of neurology, "but I never thought my future would be there."

Yet by the time Ortiz was hired as a senior secretary 18 months ago, she was accustomed to her life's veering from the road map she had drawn. In 1996, an unexpected pregnancy threatened to derail her ambitious plans just as she was finishing her freshman year at UMass-Amherst. Not wanting to give up her baby, she dropped out of school, moved back home, and went on public assistance. It pained Ortiz to disappoint her mother, a Puerto Rico native who had raised the family alone on welfare following her divorce.

"My mother had encouraged us to get a good education and break the welfare cycle," Ortiz says. "I had always wanted to be different from the other girls in the projects, who were having babies at 15, 16, and 17 and not finishing high school. So I felt I would have to come back from UMass with my head down. Then I said to myself, what do I have to be ashamed of? I'm a strong person. I decided to keep this kid, but I still have goals for myself and I can still try to achieve them."

Amparo Ortiz

Amparo Ortiz, a secretary in the MED genetics program. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Her daughter, Anjelique, was born three years ago, three days before Christmas. Six months later, Ortiz enrolled in a state job-training program. "I felt I had to jump 10 years ahead of myself mentally," she says, "so I could provide on my own what a mother and father are supposed to provide together."

Despite her own speed in leaving the welfare rolls, Ortiz believes that her case is unusual and that many single mothers, especially those lacking a high school diploma, fluency in English, or an employment history, need a longer adjustment period. Last March, she participated in a rally at the State House urging legislators to extend the state's two-year time limit on welfare benefits for recipients who enroll in training programs.

Ortiz, however, was able to reenter the work force well before her cash assistance ran out. Her previous experience gave her a head start: her résumé included stints as a cashier at Papa Gino's and Barnes & Noble, plus an office job at a family health clinic. The state's One With One mentoring program prepared her for better-paying work through courses in computer literacy, typing, critical reasoning, and time management. The training, in turn, led to internships with the MED personnel office and the school's department of continuing medical education, and finally, her full-time, permanent position at genetics.

"When I got the job, I also got my own apartment in Dorchester and my own car," she says. "Everything just fell into place. I feel so much stronger working here at BU than when I was on welfare."

Ortiz has quickly expanded her responsibilities in the office, where she has gained a reputation as a good communicator and a quick study when it comes to technology. ("I don't wait for the computer guys to come and help me figure something out," she says.) Among other duties, she handles accounts for two genetics laboratories and supervises a One With One intern. "She comes from another country and doesn't speak English well," Ortiz says of her current assistant, "but I like to help people, and I'm willing to work with her even if it's just to improve her grammar."

In her spare time, Ortiz likes to read Mary Higgins Clark novels and dance salsa and merengue at the Roxy when she can find a baby-sitter. Eventually, she hopes to resume her college education through BU's employee tuition-remission program, but money will still be tight. Anjelique, currently in the care of relatives during business hours, is on a waiting list for a preschool that costs $155 a week, and Ortiz is still trying to pay off a student loan from her two semesters at UMass. In fact, she will probably moonlight as a cashier during the holidays. Yet she speaks matter-of-factly of her burdens.

"I want to be a positive role model for my daughter," she says. "My mother is the strongest person I've ever known, and I'm glad she was there for me and my brother and sister. But I want to be there for Anjelique and also make something of myself. Right now I'm saving money for her to go to college. Even if she doesn't use the money for that, I will know that I did something for her future so she doesn't have to struggle like I do."

And while the prospect often seems remote, Ortiz has not given up her dream of that house with the verdant backyard. "It's not going to be given to me," she says, "so I have to work for it, like everything else that I've done."