Melissa Ortiz, Public Health

Melissa Ortiz graduates from Stockton in May with a bachelor’s degree in Public Health. She will continue her Stockton journey in the Master of Public Health program. Her story is one rooted in resilience and perseverance. 

“I’ve faced many obstacles throughout my life, but the ones that really helped shape me recently would have to be serving in the U.S. Army as an active-duty female soldier and becoming a young mother,” Ortiz reflected.

Two weeks after graduating high school, Ortiz left for basic training. Her life changed drastically at that time. “I felt like I was being thrown into the real world without any real guidance on how to go about life,” the Egg Harbor City resident said. “Since then, many life lessons have been learned. I figured out life by learning from my failures. Not to mention, being a woman in the military has its own set of challenges that I also learned how to overcome. It takes a lot of resilience.”

Being a mom at 19 while in the Army and pursuing an education as a first-generation college student is no easy feat. Her parents had immigrated to the United States from Peru. 

“A lot of late nights were had. Though I never stopped, there were moments when I had to slow down and take one or two classes a semester. Things were not easy then; there were a couple of classes that I had to retake,” Ortiz said. “To get myself through those times was just keeping my sight on the end goal. Since having my kids, more reasons have been given to me to keep going. I wanted to show my kids that it’s never too late to continue your education and go for your goals.”

Her time at Stockton reflects her tenacious attitude and ambition. Ortiz was originally on track to become a nurse, but after taking an Intro to Public Health course she realized her true passion was prevention and health education. Her back-to-back internships with Atlantic Prevention Resources (APR) solidified that for her.

I felt like I was being thrown into the real world without any real guidance on how to go about life...Since then, many life lessons have been learned. I figured out life by learning from my failures... It takes a lot of resilience.”

“I was given the opportunity to observe and even eventually facilitate my own life skills programs at different elementary and middle schools. What was really special about this is that the programs I learned to teach, I was able to use and practice to help my own children,” she said. 

APR created an initiative called Stigma-Free Atlantic Collaborative to reduce the negative stigma associated with mental health disorders and substance use disorders. “There were many toolkits made, including ones for colleges and universities. I thought bringing the collaborative here to Stockton would be a great idea. You never know what the students and faculty are going through,” Ortiz commented. “To end stigma and judgment associated with these disorders would allow those suffering to feel more supported and empowered to seek help.”

Ortiz’s internships at APR blossomed into a job offer for a position as a Prevention Specialist.

During her time at Stockton, she had the opportunity to use the Office of Military and Veteran Services. “They have been extremely helpful in helping veterans, such as myself, to really understand and use their benefits. Not only that, but I have also had the honor to serve as Stockton’s Public Health Society secretary,” she said.

Ortiz plans to use her degree to continue to pursue her passion in health education through facilitating life skills programs and hopes to assist in grant writing and even creating her own programs in the future.