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VC Gonzales Center manager’s passion is to inspire students

Vince Best Vince Ortiz, recently named manager of Victoria College’s Gonzales Center, is the product of a community college.

Vince Ortiz still recalls a few simple words of encouragement he received from a high school history teacher that would later help transform his life.

“Mr. Luis Leyva always stood by the door and greeted students as they came in,” Ortiz said. “One day, he stopped me, tapped me on the shoulder, and said in Spanish, ‘Tu puedes echale ganas,’ which means ‘You can do it. Just put effort into it.’ I never thought anyone cared or even knew I existed.”

Now, as manager of Victoria College’s Gonzales Center, Ortiz finds himself inspiring students to fulfill their academic dreams. Ortiz was named to replace Jackie Mikesh, who recently retired after serving as the facility’s manager since it first opened its doors in 2007.

“I have students come and sit across my desk at the Gonzales Center and tell me, ‘I’m so nervous. I’ve never done this,’ ” Ortiz said. “I tell them I can relate to what they’re going through. I know it’s scary, but they’re going to be fine. Over time, you see them relax a little bit and start gaining some confidence.”

Growing up in Chicago, Ortiz didn’t start learning to speak English until he began school. Ortiz was moved back and forth from bilingual classes and English-speaking classes through fourth grade.

“My early school years were just a mess,” Ortiz said. “A lot of it had to do with the language barrier. All I could speak was Spanish, so they didn’t know what to do with me.”

After his family moved to South Texas, Ortiz went to see a counselor at Del Rio High School to discuss his college options after graduation.

“The counselor pulled out my transcript and kind of chuckled,” Ortiz recalled. “He said I shouldn’t be thinking about college. He told me I needed to be thinking about getting a job after high school. For me, I translated that as him saying I was dumb. So coming out of high school, I figured college wasn’t an option for me.”

Ortiz took a job at the local Kmart. He entered the retail store’s management training program and was promoted to the position of operational manager at the Kmart in Uvalde. Then in 1995, Kmart shut down many of its stores across the country, including the one in Uvalde.

“I was wondering what to do next,’ ” Ortiz said. “My wife and I had already started a family, and all I had was a high school diploma. My only option was to go back to school.”

Ortiz enrolled at Southwest Texas Junior College in Uvalde. After obtaining his associate degree at SWTJC, Ortiz transferred to Sul Ross State University Rio Grande College in Uvalde, where he acquired his bachelor’s degree in social science.

“When I was finishing school, my goal was to become a counselor, because I wanted to help kids that were kind of in my shoes,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz taught one year at Uvalde High School before accepting a position at SWTJC as student life coordinator.

“I loved it. I got to know the students and administrators,” Ortiz said. “I thought, ‘Man, this is unreal. I was told college wasn’t in my cards, and here I am working for one.’ ”

Ortiz later accepted a position as international student advisor at SWTJC’s Uvalde Campus. Then in 2009, Ortiz was urged by his wife, Mary Lou, to seek work closer to family.

“Her father lived in Seguin and was up in age and not doing well,” Ortiz said. “Being a nurse, she wanted to be close to him. One day, she told me there was a job available at a college in Gonzales.”

Victoria College hired Ortiz as an advisor at Gonzales High School.

In February 2014, Mikesh approached Ortiz about the new position of assistant manager at VC’s Gonzales Center, which helped him prepare for his new role as manager.

“I always try to speak life and positivity into the students,” Ortiz said. “You have to believe in them, so they can believe in themselves. “Mr. Leyva’s words didn’t impact me immediately, but when I had the opportunity to go back to school, I would always refer back to that memory. I have learned that it can be just a few words that change a person’s life.”

by Coy Slavik, Communications Specialist, Victoria College