WCSU graduate Steven Ortiz receives Ellis Island Medal of Honor
Danbury native becomes first Costa Rican-American to receive award
DANBURY, CONN. — Western Connecticut State University graduate Steven Ortiz, a Danbury native and son of Costa Rican immigrants whose youthful achievements range the gamut from musical education and band direction to philanthropy and military service, has received the 2013 Ellis Island Medal of Honor.
The Ellis Island Medal, presented by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations during its annual awards ceremony on May 11, recognizes Americans who celebrate their own ethnic heritage while making important contributions as citizens of the United States. Ortiz received recognition for his achievement as the first recipient of Costa Rican heritage in a personal tribute entered by U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney into the Congressional Record.
Ortiz, a first lieutenant in the Massachusetts Air National Guard and commander of the Air National Guard Band of the Northeast, served as a teacher and music director at several Danbury schools before taking his current position in 2007 as director of bands at Windsor High School in Windsor, Conn. Recipient in 2005 of a bachelor’s degree in music education from WCSU, he earned numerous university honors including the Henry Barnard Award and returned as an alumnus to direct orchestras for Western musical theatre productions of “Nine,” “The Full Monty” and “City of Angels.” He also holds a master’s degree in music education from the University of Hartford.
His commitment to humanitarian service inspired his decision at the age of 15 to launch “The Good Samaritan Project,” a philanthropic initiative that began as a personal mission to collect donated clothing for distribution to families in need in Costa Rica and other Latin American countries. Building on that program’s success in shipping many thousands of pounds of new and gently worn clothing to Latin America, Ortiz has broadened the vision for the project’s future development to offer educational assistance grants and “to become a global leader in humanitarian relief by providing clean water, adequate shelter and clothing to disadvantaged persons while promoting human safety and quality education for all.”
He credits his commitment to hard work, education and humanitarian service to the strong foundation of his upbringing as a first-generation Costa Rican-American whose parents instilled in him a passion to learn and strive for personal and social improvement.
“I grew up in a small three-family home on Rowan Street in Danbury,” he recalled. “Spanish was our home’s language and I have always felt a deep connection to my native land. I was raised with many stories about my grandfather — he was a great and well-respected man, father of 12 and successful at business, who gave freely of himself and his assets to help others. My parents did not have much money but they always gave to those in need. I have always wanted to honor our family name.”
Ortiz values the ethnic and cultural diversity that he experienced during his youth in Danbury and as an undergraduate student at Western, which has encouraged him “to embrace and respect many cultures and feel at ease interacting with people of all races.” His studies at WCSU also introduced him to faculty mentors from many academic disciplines who shaped his development, including Professors of Music David Smith and Eric Lewis, Assistant Professor of Anthropology Dr. Jeannie Hatcherson, and adjunct professors Judith Smith in music, Patrizia Farina in Italian language, and Rob Burkhart in health promotion and exercise sciences. He expressed gratitude as well to members of the theatre department faculty for entrusting him with orchestral direction for three WCSU musical productions, “a harrowing responsibility for a young guy fresh out of college.”
“Looking back on my days at Western, what I remember most are the experiences that made me a whole person, more so than classes that taught me specific content knowledge,” he said. “Because of the excellence of Western, I already have made plans for my own children to attend a state university. I am grateful to Western not only for the opportunity to receive a quality education, but also for the scholarship assistance from Isabelle Farrington, Farooq Kathwari and many Danbury civic organizations that made an investment in my future.”
Ortiz’s service in the Air National Guard has afforded opportunities to conduct leading military orchestras including Pershing’s Own Army Band, the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, and this year’s Fourth of July performance by the West Point Band. As a music educator in Windsor, he has especially enjoyed his role in mentoring several students planning to pursue teaching careers, even as he has benefited from the mentoring of successful men who have shared their professional and personal experience “to give me a ‘down the road’ look at what I want my life to be like in my 40s and 50s.”
Ortiz met his wife Mehera while they were both pursuing music studies at Western, and their home life with their two young children holds a central place in his professional and investment planning for the future. “Family will always come first for me,” he said. “We learned to live on one salary when my wife decided to stay home and raise our children.” Through hard work and disciplined investment, he hopes to provide security for his family and to continue his philanthropic endeavors while taking the time to enjoy his children as they grow.
His devotion to his family influenced his decision to turn down a recent invitation from the University of Hartford to enroll in a doctoral program, which he received around the time his son was born. “I have also had several offers for higher-paying jobs that I turned down,” he said. “While it would be great to be called ‘doctor’ or have more money, I prefer to be called, ‘Dad.’”
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