By Kathy Strain, Judy and Alfonso Ortiz
Edited by Verlie Edwards
Leaving one’s comfort zone is never easy. Trying something new and different forces us to be stronger and to see the world through new eyes. This was something that Alfonso and Judy Ortiz learned early in their married lives. Both grew up in Colombia. Both came from families that encouraged education and working hard to succeed. The decision to come to the United States to study would not be an easy one for them.
Alfonso said, “I was working in Colombia and had a good job as chief of the Data Processing Division with the Ministry of Health in Colombia, and had completed a master’s degree at one of Colombia’s premier universities. Professor David Eaton, from UT, Austin, was in Colombia as part of a research team, sponsored by an International Agency, and he told me that there was a good opportunity for me to come to Austin to study at the University of Texas. Judy had a good job with an airline company, so it was a difficult decision to move to Austin, because we had to quit our jobs and leave our families. At the end, like in Robert Frost’s poem, we took the road less traveled, I guess. So, we just came to the States with a scholarship. We didn’t have a lot of savings at that time, but we decided that it was the best choice for us.”
Judy and Alfonso left all they knew behind as they began to follow the road less travelled. And it was never easy. There were many obstacles to overcome including learning English, lack of money and finding a job. They were young and therefore didn’t mind taking risks, or leaving their comfort zone to explore a new culture, and live the American dream in the land of opportunity. It was a dream and an adventure. Although quite homesick, Judy and Alfonso knew that they were in it together and it made it easier for them.
Since he didn’t speak a lot of English, Alfonso’s admission to the LBJ School at the University of Texas was contingent on learning English and passing the TOEFL exam. During the summer prior to enrolling at UT, Alfonso and Judy took English classes at UT’s Dexter House. There they met people from all over the world, who were also taking English classes in preparation to attend graduate school. Alfonso added, “That was a wonderful experience for us, since Colombia is a homogeneous country. We had regular social events where we learned more about the culture and history of these countries. I remember that summer as one of the best times while living in Texas. We made a lot of good friends, and now 30+ years later, we still keep in touch with some of them”
As they settled into their new lives, Judy and Alfonso were able to have some wonderful experiences. They were invited to Lady Bird Johnson’s house. And Judy said, “I remember she greeted us at the door with a cup of coffee. I said, ‘wow, this was a woman who was the wife of a president.’ I thought she would have a crown. It was very nice and she gave us a tour of the house.”
But a full life is always a combination of happy and sad times. Judy’s father died in Colombia two months before the birth of her first child. “It was a very sad and difficult time, since I couldn’t travel for the funeral to be there with my family. Our friends in Austin were incredibly supportive and this mitigated the sorrow”, explained Judy. “We also missed many happy events, like births of nieces and nephews, weddings of siblings and family celebrations of Christmases, New year’s etc. In addition, and most important, my children missed growing up with their extended family, which has made a great impact in their lives.”
Their children, Sebastian and Melissa were born in the United States in the 80’s. At that time, there was a drug war going on in Colombia. Judy and Alfonso knew the right thing to do was to stay in the United States. Looking back, Judy said, “It was the best decision to stay here for our future and that of our children.” They have been able to do so much with their own lives. Alfonso said, “Sebastian attended MIT for his undergraduate degree in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, and Cornell University for his Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering. He lives and works in San Francisco for a Start-Up. Our daughter, Melissa, was born in Buffalo. She attended SUNY Purchase for her bachelor’s degree in Journalism.” She lives and works in New York City for an international financial company.
Through it all, Alfonso and Judy knew the road less travelled was the best road to take. They had an adventurous spirit and adventure is still what they enjoy. They are not afraid of trying new things. And when asked about what they have learned from their lives, they responded, “Life is full of risks and adventures. When a person is still young, it is the time to take the road less traveled. Hard work and perseverance are important factors to succeed in life. Good friends are important to surpass difficult times and we need to help friends and people during difficult times, like people did for us. Pay it forward.”
Alfonso Ortiz, a native of Colombia, received his bachelor’s degree as a systems engineer at the University Industrial de Santander in 1974. He worked at the Colombian Ministry of Health from 1975 to 1981 as the chief of the data processing division. In 1980 he received his master’s degree in Health Administration at the University Pontificia Javeriana in Bogota. In 1981 he was awarded a full scholarship by the University of Texas at Austin to pursue a master’s degree at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. He moved to Austin with his wife not knowing that this was the start of his new life in the USA. One of his main research projects at the LBJ School was sponsored by the American Academic of Pediatrics to study the infant and neonatal mortality rates along the US Mexican Border. Alfonso traveled with the research group to all sister cities along the two thousand miles of the Rio Grande.He received his M.P.A. in 1983. After his graduation from the LBJ school, Alfonso was hired by Warner Associates, a consulting firm specialized on feasibility studies for the construction of new health facilities. Its owner, professor David Warner, was Alfonso’s graduate advisor. He worked here until the end of 1985, which allowed Alfonso to obtain his residence visa. Later in 1991 he and his wife became US citizens. In 1986 he moved to Buffalo, New York to work as the director of Information Systems for the Center for Development of Human Services at the SUNY Research Foundation. In 2012 he happily retired. He and his wife Judy have travelled extensively through South America, North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. He lives currently with his wife in Buffalo, New York.
Judy Ariza-Ortiz was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia. She attended the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá, majored in Modern Languages (French and English) and graduated in 1975. The following year she received a scholarship from the French government to study at the University of Nice, France and obtained two degrees: DEF (Diplôme pour l’enseignement du français a l’étranger, June 1977) and DMEA (Diplôme de méthodologie de l’enseignment audio-visuel de langues vivantes, June 1976). Judy and her husband later moved to Austin, Texas. Judy was accepted at the French Department at UT to pursue a master’s degree in French Literature, which she received in 1985. She also had the opportunity to work as a Teacher Assistant and later as an Assistant Instructor, teaching French to undergraduate students. Judy worked full-time while raising her two children. For 29 years, she experienced teaching in both private and public schools in the Buffalo area, and for a short time, at the University of Buffalo and the Buffalo State College. Retired for two years now, Judy enjoys spending more time with family and friends, traveling, reading, practicing yoga and Pilates and just having the freedom to do whatever she wants.