May 7, 2004

Graduating Latina Serves as Role Model for High School Dropouts in Low Wage Jobs

On Mother’s Day 1984, 17-year-old Leticia Ortega started her first day on the job as a drugstore clerk. Like too many Latinas, she had dropped out of high school, trading a student’s life for that of a single mother working full time.

“It didn’t take me long to realize that without an education, I didn’t have much of a future,” says an older and wiser Ms. Ortega. This coming Mother’s Day, 20 years after taking a low-wage job, she will earn her master’s degree in Education from National University.

National has been a pathway to a master’s degree for more women and more Hispanics than any other college or university in California. According to the February 23, 2004 edition of The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education, it conferred 1,898 master’s degrees to women in the 2002-2003 school year, ranking seventh in the nation and outpacing the University of Southern California, its closest competitor in the state, by almost 600 graduates. The July 3, 2003 edition of Black Issues in Higher Education ranked National University third in the nation, granting 402 master’s degrees to Hispanics in the 2001-2002 school year.


Leticia Ortega with her family.

As a working woman with limited options for advancement, Ms. Ortega decided to pursue her GED. She then enrolled in community college with ambitions of becoming a teacher. Eventually she transferred from California State University Dominguez Hills to National University because its evening-based one-course-per-month format “allowed me to maintain my job and my commitment to raising three children.”

Ms. Ortega is now a math and science teacher at Eagle Rock High School, where she serves as a role model to other Latinas. It is a leadership position that is highly in demand. According to a study, “Latinas in School,” published by the American Association of University Women, Hispanic females leave high school earlier than any other group of girls, and they are the least likely to return.

Hispanics are also critically underrepresented in graduate studies throughout the United States. In a September 2002 report by Pew Hispanic Center Senior Research Associate Richard Fry, titled “Latinos in Higher Education: Many Enroll, Too Few Graduate,” Hispanics trail far behind other population groups in attending graduate school.

Ms. Ortega says her academic accomplishments have elevated her self-image and the respect of her peers while broadening her professional opportunities and strengthening her independence and financial security. “I hope that I am an inspiration to my children and all my students,” she adds. “I know firsthand how little opportunity there is to earn a living without an education, and I also know that it is never too late to go to college and improve your life. There’s no excuse, even if you are a young, single mother. I think that’s an important message to share on Mother’s Day.”

Ms. Ortega will participate in commencement ceremonies on Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 9 at the San Diego Convention Center.

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