I’m a Berkeleyan: Rosa Ortega

Rosa Ortega smiles as she talks to a student leader she supervises

Rosa Ortega is the coordinator for BUILD, a program in UC Berkeley’s Public Service Center that helps elementary school students connect with reading in new ways. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

Growing up, I never saw my life reflected in the books I read. My family structure is a little bit unconventional. My mom was a single mom and got a lot of support from her sister, so I spent a lot of time with my aunt and uncle as a kid. I was also an only child. In books I read, there was always a mom, a dad and a couple of kids.

My mom’s family is Mexican and Irish, so we would celebrate the Day of the Dead and also go to a special restaurant on Saint Patrick’s Day and eat corned beef hash. Either there was never an aspect of culture in the kids’ books I read, or the dominant culture was always white culture.

I got involved with BUILD as a student in the summer of my freshman year in 2011. It’s a program through UC Berkeley’s Public Service Center, where students help youth in elementary schools in the community with reading. For a lot of the youth, the reason they’re in the program is that reading isn’t something they’re great at. Nobody really likes to do something that they have to spend a bunch of time on and that’s really hard for them. But reading books that they can see themselves in helps them connect with reading in a new way.

At BUILD, our library has a big selection of diverse books. There’s a concept in literature called “mirrors and windows” that we use. We want the youth to see families who look like theirs and kids who look like them in their books, but also to look through a window into another kid’s life that looks different from theirs.

After I graduated, I became the BUILD coordinator. I supervise about 20 Berkeley student leaders who work with youth in the Berkeley Unified School District, like I did. I make sure they have all that they need to be successful in the work they’re doing.

As a manager, I think it’s important to remember that there are a lot of other things going on with students. We’ve had students who are going through housing or food crises, and I always try to refer them to places on campus that can help them. Since I started at BUILD, three students I have worked closely with and supervised have become teachers. It’s been so rewarding to see that.

This is part of a series of thumbnail sketches of people in the UC Berkeley community who exemplify Berkeley, in all its creative, scrappy, world-changing, quirky glory. Are you a Berkeleyan? Know one? Let us know. We’ll add your name to a drawing for an I’m a Berkeleyan T-shirt.