Instilling Independence and Autonomy in the Next Generation

Shail Lopez-Ortiz is the current director of the Wayfinders program at the Kremen School of Education and Human Development. Her journey to Fresno State is a long and tumultuous one. In 1994, Ortiz and her husband moved to the United States from Johannesburg, South Africa. She had just completed her bachelor’s degree at the time she got married, and naturally, wanted to continue her education in the U.S. so her goal was to move to another large city that would provide her with the academic opportunities she needed. She was hoping that they would be able to secure a home in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco, but instead, her husband found a job in Fresno. She was very disappointed because at the time, the Central Valley offered little in the way of metropolitan amenities and consisted mostly of dust and farming land. Upon hearing that Fresno offered a university, Ortiz felt a beacon of hope ignite her, excited at the prospect of continuing her studies. 

After reviewing Fresno State’s degree catalog and speaking with several academic advisors, Ortiz discovered that the university offered several degrees that she was interested in. With the help of college faculty, she was able to successfully enroll in a master’s program. The biggest lesson that Ortiz learned at Fresno State is that if you are willing to put in the hard work, if you show a positive attitude and have a good work ethic, then doors will automatically open up for you. Ortiz remembers that as an immigrant freshly transposed in American society, she did have to work exceptionally hard to learn the culture and the way that Americans conducted themselves, but having a positive attitude and a good personality paid off exceptionally well. She remembers several instructors coming up to her and offering internships and job opportunities in her field the first couple of semesters while she was at Fresno State. 

Ortiz’s journey since graduating has been very momentous and propelled by her goal-driven personality. Right after graduation, one of Ortiz’s instructors approached her, offering her a job at the Rehabilitation Counseling Evaluation Center, an organization that no longer exists at Fresno State. Within a few months of working, Ortiz was instantly promoted to the director of the program. Through that position, she was able to secure several contracts with Fresno County that allowed her program to start working with individuals on welfare. The name of the program became “Welfare to work”. Ortiz explains how certain parts of the program survived and are now being run by specific individuals almost twenty years later, something she is very proud of. Because of the leadership experience she garnered, Ortiz became a business owner shortly after and has been running multiple businesses for the past fifteen years. Concurrently, for the last nine years, Ortiz has also been running the Wayfinders program at Fresno State, a pilot-program that has been running on a four million dollar grant. They are the only program on a CSU campus that serves their specific clientele, however, Ortiz is leading a movement to inspire all CSU campuses to adopt a program similar to hers. 

Since starting her journey at Fresno State, Ortiz realized her passion for working with individuals with intellectual disabilities. After obtaining her Rehabilitation Counseling master’s degree, she never thought that she would be leading a program dedicated to helping the developmentally challenged live normal, healthy lives in society. Ortiz recommends Fresno State as the perfect college for those looking to find one-on-one help in a small, personal setting that focuses on their strengths and passions. Fresno State has offered Ortiz numerous opportunities throughout her career and continues to support the work she does to this day. 

(Written by Audra Burwell, a Creative Writing student employed by the Kremen School of Education and Human Development .)

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