A Transformative Trinity: Columbia GS Student Unites Music, Community Organizing, and Mental Healthcare
Growing up near the San Diego stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border, Enrique Ortiz ‘25GS recalled being surrounded by a “trinity of poverty, drugs, and incarceration,” with tensions around immigration also looming large in the region. “I was involved in all of them,” he shared. “I made stops at all those places.” Fast forward a couple of decades and Ortiz is an accomplished musician and Columbia GS student drawing on his wealth of experience to forge a new trinity—music, community organizing, and mental health care—aimed at supporting communities facing those exact systemic issues.
After a tumultuous youth and young adulthood, Ortiz recalls fatherhood as a turning point in his trajectory. “After I had children, I knew I needed to turn my life around. So I stopped being an outlaw, living outside of the law, and I started working.”
However, Ortiz’s previous scrapes with the legal system made securing a solid job difficult. A U.S. citizen, Ortiz found himself working alongside largely undocumented immigrant colleagues at a California strawberry processing plant. Even years later, Ortiz recalled the horrible working conditions and limited workers’ rights in the plant with vivid clarity.
Searching for an out, Ortiz followed his passion for music to San Diego’s Barrio Logan Arts District, a world famous hub of Chicano culture. The District would become Ortiz’s creative home for many years, as he developed his musicality as a rapper, instrumentalist, and sound engineer, met his longtime girlfriend, and became part of the leadership of artist collective The Stronghold. Even as his music career blossomed though, everything wasn’t smooth sailing. Financial realities forced Ortiz and his team to compromise on their vision for The Stronghold as a community arts space and the collective eventually shuttered. Then, literally days before Ortiz was set to go on tour, the pandemic happened.
As music work dried up, Ortiz again found inspiration for his next chapter from his children. “My second oldest son, he was having trouble in high school,” he shared. “I wanted to be able to help him and to relate to the stresses of scholastic life. That was one of the driving forces that brought me back to higher education.”
“My second oldest son, he was having trouble in high school. I wanted to be able to help him and to relate to the stresses of scholastic life. That was one of the driving forces that brought me back to higher education.”
Financial barriers to college were also lightened due to the passage of the FAFSA Simplification Act, which removed certain questions that had previously barred Ortiz and thousands of other aspiring students from receiving federal aid due to prior run-ins with the law. After two decades of being out of school, Ortiz tentatively enrolled at Southwestern Community College, unsure whether classes would be a brief hold-over or something he’d actually see through.
A strong first semester led to straight A’s the following spring. Ortiz joined the honor society and began receiving numerous scholarships, including earning the most scholarships of anyone at his school in the fall of 2022. And amidst all his academic success, a letter from Columbia GS arrived. “I didn’t really understand how prestigious it was at first,” he said. “But once I researched it, it became a goal of mine to be admitted here.”
After his acceptance, Ortiz worked closely with administrators across GS’s offices to facilitate his cross-country move to New York City, including starting his GS classes virtually in spring 2023 before arriving in the city this summer. “They’re amazing people,” said Ortiz of his GS support network. “The work they do needs to be recognized because they’re reinventing the university as not just a place for really smart high school kids, but also a place for people who have the desire to learn and better themselves and their communities.”
“I want to use the talents I have already acquired and nourished through life, not completely abandon those things, but instead to repurpose them, and repurpose them for something that’s not egocentric, but instead driven by helping others.”
To better himself not just personally, but also for his community, is precisely Ortiz’s goal at GS. A volunteer experience working with kids at a school in East San Diego for adjudicated youth, facilitated by his girlfriend who is an artist and educator, crystallized his specific aim of specializing in music therapy. “We did raps, poetry, and open mics, and through doing that volunteer work, I saw how empowering music could be when processing trauma,” he recalled. “It really conveyed the power of music and healing to me and sparked an interest in me to study psychology.”
Ortiz has continued his phenomenal academic success at GS, being awarded a Program in Academic Leadership and Service (PALS) Scholarship, named a Columbia World Projects Social Impact Fellow, and nominated for the James P. Shenton Essay Prize in Contemporary Civilization…all before even completing his first semester on-campus! But what he’s seeking at Columbia is not simply scholastic fulfillment, but to build a networking and organizational toolbox that will sustain his future community advocacy efforts. As he put it, “I'm hoping to acquire skills and models to successfully engage with the community and do impactful work that can be measured.”
It’s hard not to hear the weight of Ortiz’s past experiences in his determination. The barriers he’s personally faced inform his passion for the work he does, and the endeavors he’s mounted, in music and community advocacy, give him a profound understanding of both his strengths and the things he wants to learn and grow within himself. Who Ortiz is today, an Ivy League student, might seem utterly divorced from circumstances he’s faced before. But in fact, it’s precisely those prior events that have shaped him into the stellar student he is today, and that will make him a powerful community organizer now and in the future. To embrace each experience, with all its ups and downs, as a fundamental stepping stone is key to Ortiz’s worldview. “I want to use the talents I have already acquired and nourished through life, not completely abandon those things, but instead to repurpose them,” he shared, “and repurpose them for something that’s not egocentric, but instead driven by helping others.”