Alondra Ortiz-Ortiz

4th Year Ph.D. in Student Mechanical Engineering, Michigan Engineering

As a Latina woman from Puerto Rico, and a person living with a physical disability that required the use of a wheelchair, Alondra’s lived experiences have inspired her to serve as a role model, mentor, and leader at U-M. She serves as a leader of the Mechanical Engineering Department DEI committee. Within this role, she restructured the committee, recruited new members, applied for grants, and organized activities including leading book clubs focused on DEI and gender equality. She has served as president of cataLIST: Ladies in Science and Technology, which provides mentorship, outreach, and career training for women in STEM at U-M. And she delivered a powerful Rackham King talk at the 2021 MLK Ceremony on her experiences as a disabled student, represented Mechanical Engineering at the welcome to President Ono, and participated in the Rackham RELATE program, where she teaches graduate students inclusive science communication to lay audiences.

Advocating for herself and others to improve accessibility, she worked with facility managers, COE, and the ADA office. Her efforts have led to the installation of automatic door openers and upgraded lab infrastructure.

Being your best DEI self: Think of a time when you were at your best at advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion. What happened? Who was there? Why did you feel at your best?

“Last year, while I was walking through the hallway of the GGB Building, I heard my name being called. I turned around and found myself in front of my advisor’s door who asked me to come in. I remember vividly the sentiment I felt when my advisor introduced me to a prospective Ph.D. student who was in a wheelchair. He told me they were just talking about me and about my path through my academic career as a Hispanic woman with disabilities. It was like seeing myself in a mirror and I immediately experiences the same feelings I experienced when I was in a wheelchair 8 years ago starting the hard journey of pursuing a degree with disabilities. Since then, I have been advocating for myself and lending my voice to those too afraid to speak up.

I have been fighting for my rights as a disabled woman and I knew this was an opportunity to know to start fighting for theirs. Since that moment, I have been helping my research group develops a lab culture that appreciates the different perspective that our different cultures bring to the table while emphasizing how important it is to foster a safe space and work environment where everyone feels welcome. I have coordinated lab walks with the UM ADA coordinator to ensure our lab is accessible to anyone and everyone while also helping the department drafts the new DEI Plan and Road Map. Seeing everyone working towards advancing DEI made me feel empowered and accomplished; made me feel like our voices are finally being heard, and this is just the beginning.”

In envisioning the future, how would you describe progress in the realm of diversity, equity, and inclusion? What might it look like?

“I envision a future in which we all feel welcome and where our different perspectives and beliefs are appreciated and valued. I envision a future where no one experiences the feeling that I experienced when I first joined the ME Department, the feeling of isolation and of being different. The future is diverse and although we all look different, I wish for the world to appreciate differences and to see each other as what we all are human beings. I envision a world where our underrepresented communities are not the ones to suffer from a poor health care system or poor education. I envision a world where women and men have the same professional opportunities and where their salaries are equal. I think of a future in which we all fight together to end bias, discrimination, and social injustice. I envision a future in which engineering is not only human-centered but women-centered, people with disabilities-centered. For me, this is what progress in the realm of diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice looks like.”

What does it mean to you to be a recipient of the MLK Spirit Awards?

“The work of MLK inspires me and my work around DEI. In 2021, I had the opportunity to share my story of living with a chronic pain illness during the COVID era as part of the King Talks. The theme of the 2021 King Talks was “where do we go from here” and since then, that has been my theme for life. We have come a long way but there is so much more to be done around DEI and the college experience of those that are part of underrepresented communities. I have been the leader of the ME DEI Alliance (formerly known as the ME DEI Student Committee) for two consecutive years and I have been working with a group of diverse students that share the same commitment and passion for DEI and social justice as me.

There have been times when I feel like giving up, where I feel my voice is not being heard and my work is not being seen. There were times when I felt we were not reaching the community and our impact was effortless. However, I looked for inspiration in our past leaders, like MLK, and I remember that although hard, they never gave up, and I will never do. I am committed to increasing the representation of underrepresented communities in our department and our university committed to ending biases and discrimination against Hispanic women in our department and committed to fostering an environment where we all feel welcome and supported and to end social injustices. Every time I look back and reflect on what I have accomplished as an individual and ask myself “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”?. It is an honor for me to be nominated for an MLK Spirit Award and to have my work finally seen and recognized. This nomination is not only for me, it is for all the past and future Hispanic women with disabilities that dreamed/dream about pursuing an academic career in engineering that have inspired me and that I will serve as an inspiration in the future.”

Alondra Ortiz-Ortiz