'I knew my path'

'I knew my path'


Luis Santiago Ortiz could have chosen an easier road to achieve his higher education goals, one that kept him in his native Puerto Rico, near family, friends and the comfort of everything familiar.  

Instead, he and his mother moved from Yabucoa on the lower eastern coast of the island to Vineland five years ago for a new life and a new language amid a community of strangers. A life that meant, for a time, he slept on the floor and relied on others for rides. A life that meant little sleep during his first semester at Rowan University, while he worked overnight shifts for a cleaning company in Camden before his 8 a.m. class in Glassboro.

“Some people called me crazy,” Ortiz recalled. “I knew I wanted to come here … I knew my path.” 

This week, the 22-year-old aspiring doctor is ready to find his way to medical school, after leaving Rowan University’s Biological Sciences Department with his name among the co-authors of a published research paper and another now under peer review.  

Ortiz is among the first cohort of graduating students from Cumberland's Bridge to Rowan program, a competitive research program funded by the National Institutes of Health and overseen by Dr. Alison Krufka, associate professor in the Biological Sciences Department. 

“He’s been a really good research student, but he’s always stayed focused on medicine. I think that comes from his upbringing and his desire to help people,” Krufka said, noting his experience in Cooper Medical School of Rowan University’s Premedical Urban Leaders Summer Enrichment program. 

Even while Ortiz juggled research, work and a challenging course load, Krufka said, he found time to lift local awareness around water quality issues around the world, as co-founder of the Rowan chapter of the Thirst Project

For Ortiz, it’s a way to give back for the many ways others have helped him. 

“There was one lady from church that would always pray for us, she always told us to keep moving forward, that God had good things for us,” Ortiz said. “Those words at that moment really meant a lot to us and they motivated us.” 

“There’s a lot of people … that influenced my life for the better and they didn’t even know it,” Ortiz said. “I want to do the same thing for people even when they don’t know they need it.” 

As an undergraduate research assistant, Ortiz impressed Dr. Gregory Caputo, associate dean of the College of Science & Mathematics. Self-motivated and independent, he worked beyond his required hours in Caputo’s lab in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department.   

“He’s fantastic,” Caputo said. “He always managed his time and figured out a way to get the experiments done. He’d come in on nights and weekends, just so he could keep the project moving.” 

“I’m so proud and sad at the same time,” Caputo said. “I’m proud of his accomplishments. I know he’s going to do great things … but my lab is not going to be the same place without him.” 

The pandemic has temporarily disrupted Ortiz’s plans to celebrate commencement with his grandmother, who had planned to visit from Puerto Rico. Even so, he remains grateful.

“It’s tough, but like I always say, you’ve got to stay positive and try to get the best thing out of the situation,” Ortiz said. “There’s always people going through worse, like doctors and nurses who are involved firsthand are really exposing their lives, while we’re here in our houses … I think we’ve got to be thankful in this situation.”