Rediscovering her roots through Latin American Studies

by Jennifer Johnson,

  • Claudia Ortiz Gajardo ’20
    Submitted photo.

After traveling the world, Claudia Ortiz Gajardo ’20 pursues long-sought degree.

Transferring to Willamette was one of the easiest moves Claudia Ortiz Gajardo ’20 has ever had to make — and her life has been full of them.  

Ortiz Gajardo was born in Chile, raised in Venezuela and spent a number of years in England. For the vast majority of her career, she worked in administrative roles that never reflected her artistic and intellectual side. While she’d long dreamed of pursuing a Latin American Studies degree, she never had the opportunity. 

So, after reuniting with her high school sweetheart and moving to Salem from England in 2011, she decided at age 43 to go back to college. She graduated in January.  

Ortiz Gajardo knew she wanted to go to Willamette but first enrolled at Chemeketa Community College, where she completed three associates degrees by 2017 (including one designed specifically for transfer students.)

She then spoke to Director of Recruitment Sue Corner and Senior Assistant Director of Admission Cady Campbell, who told her about all the application materials she needed for Willamette in great detail, she said. 

“We talked about credits, tuition and scholarships, and they showed a genuine interest in my life experiences and future projects,” she said, adding they also connected her to a future professor. “After that, we kept in touch until my last in-person day at Willamette.”    

Making the right move

The idea of college was initially daunting to Ortiz Gajardo, even in the context of her adventurous past. 

After going to college in Venezuela and working there for nearly a decade, she moved to England at age 29 to learn English. Ortiz Gajardo chose the city of Southampton to enroll in language classes at a city college, and through luck and timing, secured a research assistant job in the Modern Languages and Linguistics department and later a role as a Spanish instructor at the University of Southampton. 

When she moved to Salem, Ortiz Gajardo found work as a Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals coordinator and translator for an immigration lawyer. Then she helped her husband run his dental practice. The timing was right for her to go back to school — she had the opportunity to do so without any pressure, she said. 

Ortiz Gajardo felt like she didn’t know what to expect from college, but after working as an instructor in England, figured she would be comfortable with the setting. Once she focused on the value of the opportunity, her fears dissipated, she said. She even surprised herself. 

She had always struggled with math, but at Chemeketa she scored an “A” in algebra. She felt uncertain about her written English, but in her college classes, she was confident and her professors noticed. She gained a sense of self-confidence she didn’t think possible at this stage in life. “I felt so encouraged,” she said. “I thought, ‘I can do it.’” 

Starting over 

Once she started taking classes at Willamette, she bonded easily with the professors because they were more or less the same age. Students responded warmly, too. 

“At the beginning, they didn’t know how to talk to me at first — they saw me as this older person,” she said. “But then we got to know each other and got along well. It was really fun and I learned a great deal from my peers. It was a wonderful experience.”

Academically, she felt challenged. Her favorite classes were led by Professor of Spanish Patricia Varas and Professor of Anthropology Peter Wogan, who inspired her and enhanced her perspective, she said. 

“When we were learning about Latin America, I always felt an immense sense of pride and joy,” she said. “In a way, I was rediscovering myself, my identity and my roots.” 

In her degree, she found a perfect combination of her interests in LatinX, feminism, literature, and a better context for Latin America, both in how it’s perceived and how it interacts with the rest of the world, she said. She wrote her capstone thesis on the revitalization of one indigenous language of Chile, Mapudungun, and its identity and culture through hip hop music. Her next step will likely be a masters degree in women, gender and sexuality studies. 

She’s glad she decided to transfer to Willamette, she said. 

“What made me happiest is that the transfer process went so smoothly, and I continued to grow academically in a supportive environment,” she said. “I now have friends for life.”

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