Originally published in The California Aggie
Upon walking into the nearly-empty ASUCD Coffee House at 8:15 a.m., it takes approximately 30 seconds for John Ortiz-Hutson to begin waving friendly “hellos” to colleagues and friends.
“I don’t know if ‘famous’ is the right word,” Ortiz-Hutson said, at the suggestion that he appears to be a celebrity of sorts on campus. A young woman has just smiled and greeted him, the third in a span of 45 minutes. “I’ve just been around, and I’m visible.”
For the past 23 years, Ortiz-Hutson has indeed been a fixture on the UC Davis campus, first as a senior learning skills officer at the Student Academic Success Center and then as the student affairs officer of the African American and African studies program. He will officially retire this week, culminating in a career that has allowed him to mentor and advise hundreds of students, as well as collaborate with dozens of campus departments.
“I feel fortunate. I know that UC Davis has been, for the most part, good to me and good for me, and I’ve worked with some marvelous, fascinating people who I’ve learned a great deal from,” Ortiz-Hutson said. “It’s been a blessing to do the work that I do. I think I’ve stayed in my current position a bit too long, because I love it so much. But it’s been rewarding and I’m thankful and I feel blessed.”
Born in Boston and a graduate of Vallejo High School, Solano Community College and San Jose State University, Ortiz-Hutson began his career as a counseling assistant at Los Angeles City College.
Five years later, he returned to Northern California to be closer to his two sons, and landed a job as a learning skills officer at UC Davis in 1988. There, he worked closely with the African American student population through the Special Transitional Education Program, monitoring students’ academic progress and teaching study skills courses.
Ten years ago, Ortiz-Hutson became the student affairs officer for the African American and African studies program. In addition to advising students majoring and minoring in African American and African studies, as well as in other majors, he also coordinated the African American theme program in the Campbell Hall dorm. This fall, he helped launch the Linda Frances Alexander Scholars program, which provides academic and cultural enrichment for African and African American students.
Ortiz-Hutson hesitated to describe his work as a “strategy” for advising the many students that stop by his office in Hart Hall. He said he is simply curious.
“[Students] think they can navigate a major research institute in isolation, which they should never do,” Ortiz-Hutson said. “My number-one goal is to see to it that students feel better when they leave my office than when they came in. So I consider myself a holistic advisor. I like to know who the student is. And I don’t pry. We just talk.”
Though each student comes in with unique challenges, certain pieces of Ortiz-Hutson’s advice remain constant: take advantage of university resources, explore different majors and, perhaps most importantly, connect with your cultural background.
“If this were my university, I would see to it that every student was grounded in their culture first, whatever their culture is,” Ortiz-Hutson said. “Find out more about who you are as an individual and find out more about the history and culture and significant contributions of your people. Ground yourself in yourself, and then move forward.”
Senior sociology and African American studies double major David Thompson first met Ortiz-Hutson as a member of the African American residence hall theme program and then worked with him as a resident advisor for the program. Ortiz-Hutson helped him survive a system that he warned would “chew him up and spit him out.”
“As college students, we think we’ve seen it all. So he appeals to our college student-ness and lets us find our own way, but guides us to our way,” Thompson said.
On UC Davis School of Education student Lorraine Wilkins’ first day at UC Davis as an undergraduate math major, she was told to find Ortiz-Hutson.
She took her four children, then aged three to nine, straight to his office.
“We went to see him at about 5 p.m., and we were there until 7 p.m. He gave my kids crayons, and asked about my goals,” Wilkins said. “He’s like a social worker within the school.”
After leaving UC Davis, Ortiz-Hutson’s future plans include spending time with his grandchildren, finishing his Master’s thesis and possibly joining the Peace Corps. Throughout his time at this university, he hopes students understood that they have an obligation to complete their education, in honor of those who have fought for this right.
“I like to help students realize, truly, their greatness. You have to realize you’re in the right place. Get on with your life, do this thing and do it well,” Ortiz-Hutson said. “What else are you going to do with your time? If you weren’t here you’d be asking someone if they wanted fries with their hamburger.”