Listening, understanding and empathy. These are traits that may be lost on some, but not recent Human Services graduate Leslie Reyes-Ortiz ’21.
As a bilingual, first-generation student, Reyes-Ortiz knows firsthand what it’s like for Spanish-speaking immigrants trying to navigate and assimilate to life in a new country. That is why she is planning to use her education to help all immigrants, specifically Latinx families, achieve better lives in America.
“Everyone is trying to have a better opportunity — so they come to the United States and when they get here, it’s not what they thought,” Reyes-Ortiz says.
In 1993, Reyes-Ortiz’s parents came to Colorado from Oaxaca, Mexico and struggled to provide for her while trying to overcome a steep language barrier, a lack of education, and a constant threat that they could be deported at any time.
Ready to seize the opportunities her parents never had, Reyes-Ortiz earned a Track & Field scholarship to MSU Denver in 2016 and pursued a Nursing degree before her drive to help others drew her to Human Services.
Then, the unthinkable happened.
In 2018, at the start of her sophomore year, Reyes-Ortiz’s mother Maggie was detained and deported, ending up in Tijuana with nowhere to stay and no one to ask for help.
“Growing up I would hear about families getting ripped apart and say, ‘I can’t imagine what I would do if I was in that situation.’ A couple of years later, that was me.”
With this, Reyes-Ortiz moved back to Colorado Springs and enrolled in UCCS to finish her degree while helping to support her dad and her twin sister, Cindy.
“My dad was definitely falling apart,” Reyes-Ortiz explains. “Because can you imagine your wife being deported after being together ever since you were 16?”
After transferring, Reyes-Ortiz was still reeling from the emotional shock that her mom was now hundreds of miles away. She was having trouble committing to classes, especially one particularly challenging psychology course taught by UCCS Counseling and Human Services Professor, Kim Severn.
“It was getting to halfway through the semester and I didn’t know how to turn the grade around so I decided to open up about it — I broke down,” Reyes-Ortiz recalls.
Severn consoled her and helped her through the hardship by coming up with a game plan, meeting with her every week.
“Kim was there for me, so I had her as my counselor,” Reyes-Ortiz says, with a laugh. “Having someone just to hear you, it helped me a lot.”
With guidance from Severn, Reyes-Ortiz landed an internship at Centro de la Familia, a Colorado Springs-based counseling center for Latinx families.
Once there, Reyes-Ortiz realized how hard it was for so many families just like hers to find a helping hand.
“I got really emotional with the cases because they hit home,” Reyes-Ortiz says.
Reyes-Ortiz also discovered how much she liked helping kids through the UCCS on-campus counseling program, Campus Connections, which focuses on pairing Human Services and Counseling undergrads with middle school students as mentors.
“The kid I was assigned to really opened up to me after I was there listening to him. I felt like I wasn’t doing anything, but at the end of the semester, he got me flowers and a card and said I really helped him,” Reyes-Ortiz says.
Eventually, Professor Severn inspired Reyes-Ortiz to consider building upon her Bachelor of Human Services with a Masters of Arts in School Counseling, especially because Spanish-speaking counselors are in such high demand.
“It’s hard when parents show up for parent-teacher conferences and there’s no one to translate,” Reyes-Ortiz says. “I want parents to feel good and not be embarrassed, because English is a hard language.”
To this day, Reyes-Ortiz still has trouble pronouncing some English words, with her mother and father only knowing enough to get by. Now, with her mother stuck in Tijuana, she has to practice over the phone.
“I was able to see her for the first time this August,” Reyes-Ortiz says. “I took a plane to California and drove from San Diego with my mom waiting at the borderline. She told me she wished to be a bird to fly over here and that made me tear up.”
Currently, Reyes-Ortiz and her sister are saving up money to start the process of getting their mom back to Colorado, but it’s not easy.
“It’s so much paperwork and, over there, money is different, so what my mom makes is just enough for her to eat and pay for her rent,” Reyes-Ortiz says. “My sister and I still send her money at least twice a month to help with whatever she needs covered.”
It’s part of why Reyes-Ortiz is ready to graduate with her Master’s in School Counseling in 2022. She’s ready to start her career and help her mother, if not many more immigrants, make a better life for themselves, through listening, understanding, and empathy.
“To me, Human Services is all about helping one person and empathizing with them,” Reyes-Ortiz concludes. “I think it’s the most simple thing anyone can do is take time out of their day to listen. All you have to do is be there for them.”