UMass Sesquicentennial

meet UWW alumnae Marina Ortega


Physician Assistant medical student and winner of a coveted National Health Service Corp Scholarship, 48 year old UMass Amherst UWW grad Marina Ortega, '13 talks about her journey from a career in Silicon Valley to graduate school and how UWW helped her get there. Her degree concentration: Health Studies Administration. Her advisor: Jacqueline Castledine. 

Every non-traditional age student has a story. What’s your story?
Family difficulties led to my leaving college when I was younger. On several occasions, I tried going back, but found myself disillusioned by what seemed to be a monumental failure of having not completed my undergrad when I should have. Luck would have it that I was recruited, along with new college graduates, into the electronics industry in California. My career flourished and it seemed that every time I thought about going back to school, I received a promotion. I’d probably still be on that path if it weren’t for a chronic ache to use whatever smarts I have towards social justice. This ache caused me to leave high tech and transition into the nonprofit sector, where I worked with various organizations committed to social justice. But even then, I grew tired of working from behind a computer, writing and researching or managing people from a comfortable office. I yearned to work directly with the people we were writing about.

I decided that I wanted to work in a clinic as a physician assistant (PA), but since the programs are masters programs, they require an undergraduate degree. For the first time, my lack of degree became an obstacle. Just to be considered for a highly competitive slot into any PA school, I would have to finish my undergraduate degree and take several prerequisite science and biology classes. And, I would need to do so with as close to a 4.0 GPA as possible. Most PA schools receive roughly 1000+ applications every year and accept around 40 students. The odds of it all seemed quite daunting, but I knew I couldn’t even be in the running if I didn’t have my undergraduate degree.

Why did you choose UMass Amherst UWW to complete your degree?
Making the difficult decision to finish my degree triggered a cascade of questions. What school should I attend? How will I pay for it? Will they value my life experience? How long will it take? But one thing was very clear from the onset: The school needed to have a strong reputation, and I wanted my previous hard work validated in some way. I had been a lifelong learner, accumulating coursework from various schools, and had risen quite rapidly in my career despite not having a degree.

It is difficult to emphasize how vulnerable I felt in the beginning, despite being a rather confident person. My advisor, Jacqueline Castledine, probably cannot imagine just how important her kind approach was in the beginning. It solidified my decision to go to UMass Amherst UWW. She made it clear that she would “always be available” to me. I didn’t realize how important this was until I heard those words. The program is ideal for anyone who wants a reputable school and a dignified experience.

What was the best part about being a UWW student for you?
Meeting students with so many diverse experiences was as much a part of the learning experience as the coursework. The program is structured to take advantage of this, and I can state unequivocally that I learned so much from my peers. Every class taught me more than I expected, much in part to having the opportunity to read about others’ opinions about our weekly topics. This was priceless to me. In fact, I miss it.

What did you study?
I studied Health Administration. I was simultaneously taking science classes at my local community college to satisfy the pre-requisites for a physician assistant program that I started in September 2013.

What was your favorite class at UMass Amherst?
This is a tough question. I had an incredibly positive experience with several great professors. However, two classes really stood out because of where I come from and where I am headed. Understanding Health Disparities rocked my world. I learned so much, and it left me wanting a Masters in Public Health. The other class was Writing About Experience. It was quite an intense experience. I was able to reflect on the seemingly disparate paths I have taken that are connected in ways that I never realized. It was quite powerful to write about this. I’m a more confident person because of this class. I understand myself better and am at peace with the path I have traveled.

What were the benefits of taking your classes online?
The biggest benefit of taking online classes is obvious: flexibility. This is inherent, and the UMass Amherst UWW program has mastered this. But, the other benefit that I never expected was the camaraderie that developed every week when we were given an assignment to comment on and then required to respond to what others had written. This became my favorite part of every course. Not only did I often get constructive feedback from my professors, but I also received feedback from my peers that I learned so much from. Because students come from a myriad of backgrounds – married, religious, older, younger, immigrants, bankers, Zumba instructors, police officers, etc. – it lead to an incredible weekly dialogue, one that often highlighted my biases and assumptions about any given topic. I believe this is the biggest benefit to taking an online course. I received more feedback on a weekly basis than I would have in a classroom. I tend to be quiet in a classroom setting, but I couldn’t do that in an online class. I had to articulate thoughts every week, during the entire program. I learned to love it!

How did you balance work, school and other responsibilities?
Being a good manager of time and not falling behind cannot be underestimated. But what I find that helps me the most is always keeping my “eye on the ball” and hearing my mom’s voice, reminding me that where there is a will, there is a way.

What advice do you have for other students finishing their degrees?
My biggest advice would be to fully embrace the weekly forums and really spend time reading what others have to say. And, fully embrace your UMass Amherst UWW advisor and your professors. They will give back to you as much as you give to the program. Though my path through the program was accelerated, I gave it my all and was given so much in return. The one time I didn’t, I deservedly received an A- instead of an A. You will find a way to get through this. And, at UWW, there are going to be fantastic people at every turn to help you.

What are your future plans professionally and personally?
My future plan is to get through graduate school at Samuel Merritt University in Oakland, CA to become a physician assistant so that I can practice primary care in a community clinic. Personally, I hope to take a long vacation when I pass the national board exam and spend lots of quality time with my awesome partner.

Tell readers something cool about yourself that no one would guess about you?
I once found myself at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro wondering, “Who do you think you are?"

Yellow Ribbon Program