U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz saw a bit of herself as she looked out at the hundreds of interested young faces in the audience at Lawrence High School last week.
Conversely, she said she hoped they "can see yourselves in me."
"That you can see what I have gone through ... And you realize you could do it too," said Ortiz, the top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts.
Ortiz, a New York native of Puerto Rican decent, is the first woman and Latino to hold the federal post. She is responsible for overseeing the prosecution of all federal crimes in Massachusetts, including anti-terrorism and national security, civil rights, public corruption cases and more.
She spoke yesterday at Lawrence High about her work as a federal prosecutor and her journey as an attorney, wife and mother getting there.
"It continues to be a profound opportunity. I have never worked so hard and I have never loved a job so much," said Ortiz, who has two daughters, ages 20 and 25.
She told the students about a point in her career when she was passed over for a judgeship and was immediately disappointed. However, had she become a judge, a lifetime appointment, she couldn't have pursued her work on the federal level.
"I became bitter for a moment. I knew I had to try harder and be better," she said. As a result, "My life took a different path."
Ortiz, one of five children, was appointed in November 2009 by Attorney General Eric Holder. "I thought this is not bad for a Puerto Rican girl from Manhattan in Spanish Harlem," she said. The audience, largely students of Latino descent, burst into applause.
Ortiz's words for the students were extremely personal. She talked about growing up in New York, with her immigrant parents. When she wasn't in school, she helped her "Papi," who owned a small store. Very early on, she knew she wanted to be a lawyer and her parents encouraged her to focus on education.
"I wanted more than what my parents had, and quite frankly, that's what my parents wanted for me," she said.
She attended Adelphi University and George Washington University Law School where she took advantage of any internship, work study and clinical program offered to achieve her dream of becoming a trial lawyer. After moving to Massachusetts with her husband, she was hired for a legal program at Harvard Law School in 1989.
"They were looking for a prosecutor who was fluent in Spanish," Ortiz explained.
Ortiz worked as a Middlesex County assistant district attorney before going to work in the federal prosecutor's office as an assistant U.S. attorney.
Her success, however, did not come overnight or with ease. Ortiz spoke of perseverance and determination and balancing her roles as wife and mother as ascended professionally. She told the crowd how life can change in a matter of minutes, as it did for her in 1992 when was she "on top of the world."
She was married, had just had her youngest daughter and was working as a Middlesex County prosecutor. She was a manager in the officer, supervising other lawyers. She lived in a beautiful home with her family.
"I had everything I wanted. I had succeeded," she said.
Then her husband's doctor called. Her husband had a rare form of pancreatic cancer, which he would battle for eight years until his death in 2000. Ortiz was left with two daughters to raise alone. However, it was her daughters and their future that moved her forward.
"It was important for me, for them, to get myself together and continue on," she said.
She encouraged the group to "lean on family, friends and colleagues for support."
"They are the ones that will help you get through it," Ortiz said. The crowd again burst into applause.
Students from Lawrence High, Bellesini and Esperanza academies, Community Day Charter Public School and YouthBuild attended yesterday. Ortiz visit is part of the White Fund Enlightenment Series, through North Essex Community College. Martha Leavitt, Lawrence campus operations director, was recognized as the catalyst for bringing Ortiz the city yesterday.
TIPS FOR SUCCESS
Here are some tips for career success U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz shared during her visit to Lawrence High School.
Dare to dream. Set your goals high and go for it. Realize it could be easy.
Surround yourself with people who believe in you and will push you to succeed.
Prioritize your life and focus on day-to-day basis.
Don't give up. Lean on family friends and colleagues if necessary.
Never be afraid to ask for help. Life can be hard and sometimes get overwhelming. Reach out.
Work hard and always try to make a good impression.
Build relationships and remain friends with people you meet along your way.
Accept disappointments and never let them define you.
Be nice and remain positive. Nobody wants to be around a complainer, whiner or someone who talks behind people's backs.
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