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The Road to Cambridge

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“Oh my God. I'm at Harvard!” Oprah Winfrey, one of the richest and most famous women in the U.S., couldn't believe it. She was at Harvard, one of the most prestigious institutions in the United States--founded in 1636 and as famous around the world as Coca-Cola.

Last May, Oprah--as her fans know her--became the protagonist of one of the most sacred rituals at American universities: The commencement speech for the Class of 2013.

Before stepping up to the podium, she was bestowed with a “Honoris Causa” Doctorate in law from the university. “Not many girls from Rural Mississippi have made their way to Cambridge,” she said. “To me, this is a definite milestone on a long and blessed journey.”

Among those at the ceremony was a young woman who seven years ago arrived at Harvard with a suitcase full of dreams. Today, amidst a brilliant career, she belongs to the admissions team at the prestigious university.

Her name is Lucerito Ortiz of Los Angeles. Her father is from Mexico, a landscaper, and her mother is from Guatemala, a housekeeper. She made her way to Cambridge thanks to her and her parents' efforts and the Harvard's financial aid program.

LUCERITO ORTIZ, daughter of a landscaper and a housekeeper, applied to Harvard almost as a joke. The university paid her full tuition and today she belongs to the university's select group of admissions officers.

Ortiz is part of the huge number of young Hispanics who in recent years have been making their way to U.S. higher education.

According to a study conducted last year by the Pew Hispanic Center, more than two million Hispanics between the ages of 18 and 24 have made their way to higher education. That is a record-setting 16.5% of new students, a figure that for the first time ever matches the Latino percentage in the U.S. population as a whole.

But, unlike Ortiz, the majority of Hispanics who are pursuing higher education are doing so in overcrowded and resource-strapped institutions, where there is no guarantee that their education will make the competitive in the job market.

A study by Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, published in July 2013 by Georgetown University with the title “Separate and Unequal,” says that for the past 15 years, “the access to post-secondary education by African-Americans and Hispanics has been a story of good and bad news.”

“The good news is that African-Americans and Hispanics are showing great progress accessing post-secondary education. The bad news is that both groups are falling behind when it comes to accessing top-tier universities in comparison to the percentage of these groups in the population as a whole.”

“The good news,” says the study, “is that African-Americans and Hispanics are showing great progress accessing post-secondary education. The bad news is that both groups are falling behind when it comes to accessing top-tier universities in comparison to the percentage of these groups in the population as a whole.”

Lucerito Ortiz' case is more an exception that the norm. Brilliant and encouraging, but an exception nonetheless.