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Staff Snapshot, Yulianna Ortega, STEM diversity champion and artist

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The winner of the UC Santa Cruz Alumni Association Outstanding Staff Award, and a proud STEM-major graduate, Yulianna Ortega has devoted her career to helping diverse Banana Slugs succeed. She’s also passionate about the traditional Oaxacan art that shaped her childhood and heritage. 

A first-generation college graduate, Yulianna completed her undergraduate degree at UC Santa Cruz, where she double-majored in biology and Latin American/Latino studies. As her studies progressed, she discovered that while she was passionate about the sciences, she did not want to pursue a career as a research scientist. When she found a job at the UC Santa Cruz STEM Diversity Office, she realized it was the perfect marriage between her dual interests in science and social justice. Since then, she’s been a passionate advocate of the students she serves and the cause of expanding diversity and educational access in the sciences.

Today, as STEM Diversity Programs director, Yulianna works to strengthen and empower the students of her alma mater. She leads a team of faculty and staff members that are committed to supporting students as they work to overcome personal hardships and academic barriers.

“Many of the students I work with experience imposter syndrome, and struggle to realize their full potential as scientists,” Yulianna explains. “How could they not, when we live in a society that reinforces negative stereotypes and promotes a narrative that discourages their aspirations? My work helps students peel back these layers until they come to understand they were born with a gift — and that it’s our mutual responsibility to ensure they can contribute their talent in a meaningful way. My commitment is to create a supportive environment that enables students to realize their value, recognize their contributions and continue to develop the skills they need to be successful.”

When asked what has been most rewarding about her career in advancing STEM diversity, Yulianna says: “To know I am supporting the development of future science leaders that will solve some of our society’s most pressing issues. I know that the students I’ve mentored — who I have witnessed excelling academically while balancing social, political, economic and emotional demands — will change the face of science and be the leaders to transform the academic and science industry sectors.”

“In my old age, I look forward to reading about all the wonderful, empowering, and long-lasting change these students will go on to do,” she says.

Meet Yulianna

Name: Yulianna Araceli Ortega

Job title: Director

Department/unit: STEM Diversity Programs

Location/campus: UC Santa Cruz

When did you start working for UC? I am celebrating 15 years at UC Santa Cruz — I started in October, 2005.

In five words or less, what do you do for UC? Promote, integrate and celebrate diversity.

Why do you love working for UC? It’s an environment where I can connect and learn from students. I am humbled by their stories of resiliency and get to witness and celebrate their achievements. The students I mentor become members of my family.

What’s something people don’t know about you? I am from a small town in Oaxaca, Mexico, called San Martín Tilcajete. The town is known for its Alebrijes — detailed, hand-painted woodcarvings — and I come from a family of artists who make them for a living. While I don’t do woodcarving, I write poetry and paint with acrylics as a way to preserve the artistic part of my heritage. I have passed this on, and my daughters like to paint, too.

Who’s your dream dinner guest (living or dead) and why? Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz — born of a Spanish father and Mexican mother, she was a Criolla philosopher and writer who challenged the status quo in her time. She is someone I admire for eloquently challenging the limitations that society bestowed upon her based, on her gender and status in society.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received? A well-known scientific figure and colleague whose work I admire empowered me by describing me as “[a] powerful and [an] inspirational force.” I hold onto these words and show up authentically to advocate for equity in higher education.

 

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