Produced by the Department of Media Relations & Publications

Alumnus Shares His Journey to Success

October 15, 2008

In this segment, we hear Alumnus Carlos Ortiz deliver the keynote address at Lehman's 2008 Convocation Ceremony. Mr. Ortiz—from the class of 1979—is Vice President and General Counsel of Goya Foods and was a member of the SEEK program during his years at Lehman.

9 Minutes 50 Seconds

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This is Kenesha Phillip, a Political Science and Philosophy major at Lehman College and Student Conference Senator. In this segment, we hear Alumnus Carlos Ortiz deliver the keynote address at Lehman's 2008 Convocation Ceremony. Mr. Ortiz—from the class of 1979—is Vice President and General Counsel of Goya Foods and was a member of the SEEK program during his years at Lehman. He earned his law degree from Brooklyn Law School.



I would like to tell you a little bit about my journey and offer you some words of encouragement and a little free advice. So, let me begin by telling you a little bit about me, my family and our journey. I am a first generation Puerto Rican Hispanic-American who was born in the South Bronx, right back here at Lincoln Hospital.

And-- I was raised in Washington Heights and in Harlem. Like many of you, I was the first to graduate college in my family. My father was only able to get a third-grade education. My mother could only finish her third year in high school. Both of my parents were low-wage earning hospital workers who emigrated from Puerto Rico in the late 1940's to this great country of ours in search of a better life.

They ended up sacrificing their educational opportunities and just about everything else in life in order to raise their five children. They raised us with good values, and love and respect for faith, family, friends and our country. They also provided us with the best educational opportunities they could. My parents never owned a home, a car. They never took a vacation, and they were never able to sit with us and discuss our homework or review it with us.


We lived in tenements under sub-standard living conditions, often without heat or hot water in vermin infested apartments and we often studied with heaters under candlelight and/or with flashlights. My parents were poor and did not give us very much in the materialistic sense, but they enriched our lives in every other possible way.

In addition to raising us as practicing Catholics with a strong, spiritual foundation, they always emphasized to us the importance of getting a good education. They spent all of their available monies to send all five of their children to private Catholic, elementary and high schools. They told us that getting the best education we can get would enable us to have better lives than they had and that we could, in turn, provide even better lives for our children in the future.

I'll never forget that day, that one Christmas Day, when my father told me that the only good gift he could give me, and our family could give me, was a good education and that I should get as good and as much of an education as I could, because, quote, "Education was the only thing that no one could ever take away from you."


Notwithstanding those valuable lessons I learned, I came very close to deciding not to go to college. As with many families then and still today, my parents unfortunately got divorced. And my mother was having a very difficult time making ends meet on her low income. My older brother had joined the Marines. My older sister left home. And my two younger brothers were too young to help support our family. That left me with the choices of either going to college, getting a job and helping my mother pay the bills, or going to college and working nights, neither one of which was encouraging.

But, God was looking out for us. Along the way people who cared helped me sort through life's difficult challenges. At Bishop Dubois High School, my counselor took me to his office and filled out a college application for me, including checking off the box marked, "SEEK." Made me sign the application and mailed it in for me as well. I-- I-- as you can tell I was reluctant to go to college, given all of the challenges that we faced.

But, the rest was history. I was later admitted to Lehman College and accepted into the SEEK program, a program for economically and educationally disadvantaged students whose acronym stood for Search for Education and Elevation of Knowledge. Through SEEK I received invaluable financial and educational assistance. That help, combined with my after-school jobs at gas stations and supermarkets and other jobs I held during summers enabled me to both get an education at Lehman and help my mother pay the bills.


At Lehman, I had the opportunity to study with excellent and dedicated faculty. Though that faculty not only taught me well, but they also mentored me through my college years and beyond. Not only did they welcome student participation in university governance as I was able to do through my service on personnel and budget and search committees, but they also contributed to the betterment of my family's personal life.

Professor James Kraus, who was then Lehman's pre-law advisor helped me run a rent strike and take over-- take over my building. (LAUGHTER) Professor Kraus stayed in touch with me after graduation and one day came to visit me at home with a law school application in his hand and strong encouragement and support in his heart.

With his help, I was able to get admitted into several law schools and go on to have a successful career in the law, including being able to serve as a strong advocate for change in our nation's judicial system all the way to the White House. Professor Kraus and I have remained lifelong friends. And if all of that isn't enough to convince you of the tremendous value that I received from my Lehman education, I would add that Lehman has also provided me with a major additional fringe benefit of meeting the woman who would become my wife (LAUGHTER) for nearly 26 years and gave birth to our three, wonderful sons, two of whom are now away at college themselves.


You see, in short, when I first arrived on my journey at Lehman in September of 1974 with much fear and trepidation, other than my family's love and encouragement, I had very little of anything else except hope and prayer. But, as a result of the outstanding education I received both in and out of the classrooms here at Lehman, I've been able to navigate through many life-changing experiences based on faith, family, friends, those wonderful teachers here, and this great country of ours.

Because of my days here at Lehman College, a world of new opportunities and possibilities opened up for me and my family, and they have been continuously open for us till this very day. For that, I will forever be indebted and grateful to you, all of you at Lehman College. Now, as some words of encouragement and advice for-- for you students, I will say the following: I know how difficult it is for you to get where you are today, and how difficult it was.

I know-- I also know that you're working hard to balance the rigorous demands of your studies, your families and your personal lives. But, most importantly, I know that if you continue working hard you will get a great education here at Lehman and beyond. Hopefully you'll-- you'll consider going on to graduate school as well. But, you will graduate and you will go on to have successful careers and go on to take on important positions in the public and private sectors, in corporate America, in academia and in government.


My only hope is that along your journey you will remember the many who are less fortunate than you, and who will need your help in leadership. I hope that you will make the time to give back to the community a little of yourselves. You see the degree to which you will really be, quote/unquote, "successful" in life will in large part depend upon how much you are willing to give back to others. The most successful amongst you will be those who learn one of life's simplest but most important lessons: that giving is more important than receiving.

That in addition to pursuing personal and professional excellence, we should also highly value the pursuit of excellence through public service. And we should not only be good at what we choose to do for a living, but more importantly that we should be good human beings. Because, in the end our performance in life will not be judged by how well we have done for ourselves but rather by how much good we have done for others.

I view today's gathering at this great institution, which was named in honor of former New York State Governor Herbert H. Lehman, a visionary leader revered for his integrity-- commitment and-- and public service, as an opportunity to reaffirm my commitment to give back more than I receive, to continue serving you and the public-- to the best of my ability and to continue working hard to earn the honor that you have bestowed upon me today. Thank you, again, and may God bless you.




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