By Kristen Warfield
The sun has barely started to rise at 5:30 a.m. when Mercedes Ortiz turns off her alarm to get ready for school. Achy and fatigued, she rolls out of bed at her family’s home in Walden, New York, knowing there’s another long day ahead.
To the sounds of Eyewitness News, she primps her lively black curls and chooses her outfit. Today she picks a comfortable pair of blue jeans, a white shirt with President Obama’s face on it and a pair of grey sneakers. She slides a hot pink headband over her hair and throws a coat over her petite frame, ready to walk to the bus stop in the frigid November breeze.
Her morning bus route, which would normally take just 25 minutes by car, is a daily, two-hour long trip. Without the means to drive herself, she relies on busses, taxis and the occasional ride from a family friend to make it to SUNY New Paltz, where she’s taking four classes and works at the campus radio station. Spending anywhere between $190 and $210 a week to get there, a bulk of the transit costs come from cab rides home after late nights working at the station.
“When I’m on this bus to New Paltz, I’m already exhausted to no end,” Ortiz says. “I’m exhausted all the time, and I’m broke all the time. I look in my bank account and I don’t know how much money I have from having to pay my bus and taxi fares — but I don’t want to depend on my family for help.”
When Ortiz, 26, began her college career nine years ago, one thing was certain: submitting to thousands of dollars in student loan debt was not an option. She had heard stories of people signing their livelihood away and having to live with the reality of being financially set back in life before entering the real world, and knew she could not have that stress hanging over her head. Her mom, Carolyn, agreed — growing up in a low-income household, she received tuition assistance back in the 80s to attend college for free. So Ortiz began working at ShopRite as a cashier and taking classes part-time at SUNY Orange instead.
“My dad lent me $2,500 that first semester, and then I was on my own,” Ortiz says. “ I usually only took three classes because that’s all I could afford.”
Collectively, Americans owe nearly $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, with 2016 graduates racking up an average debt of $37,172, according to data from the Institute for College Access and Success. At a time where the affordability of higher education decreases and narratives of distraught students at the hands of debt cycle through the national media, Ortiz is doing college her own way — and she has for nearly the past decade.
At the community college where she got her start, Ortiz paid an average of $1,900 out of pocket each semester in tuition. To bring in some extra income outside of her ShopRite job, she began a two-year stint for Americorp, working the front desk at a community health center for below minimum wage. In exchange of two years of work there, she would receive some tuition assistance for school. Finally with her associate’s in hand from SUNY Orange in spring 2014, Ortiz transferred to New Paltz with her eyes on a bachelor’s degree. She’s set to graduate this May.
“It’s taken me awhile to get to my destiny, but I won’t have debt for a lifetime,” Ortiz says. “That’s what a lot of these students have. They’re going to be in debt for the rest of their lives. For what?”
Though Ortiz isn’t fraught with daily concerns over loans, she has plenty of stress from having to pay for transportation to make it to and from class every day. Working to cover her bus and taxi fares — on top of tuition — means exhaustion is a common feeling. While a driver’s license seems like the simple solution, Ortiz doesn’t have one.
“I’ve been taking driving classes here and there since my senior year of high school,” Ortiz says. “I don’t think I’m ready to drive. I’m just not confident on the road.”
The morning bus brings her to campus at 9 in the morning, and her job at the school’s radio station keeps her there until at least 8 p.m. Each night, she calls for a cab to bring her home, or to her midnight closing shifts at the grocery store. Thankfully, she says, her cab driver takes $2 off her fare each night because he knows how much she relies on public transportation.
“It’s taken me awhile to get to my destiny, but I won’t have debt for a lifetime.” – Mercedes Ortiz
Between taking the bus and cabs on a daily basis, Ortiz uses nearly all of her paycheck from ShopRite to sustain her weekly transportation expenses. After working at the store for nine years, she received a raise in November bringing her pay to $11 an hour. As a long-term employee that is now bumped off her parent’s health insurance due to her age, Ortiz receives minimal coverage from the company — a rising concern with a recent health diagnosis.
Last semester, between her early mornings, packed work and school schedule and late nights traveling back home, Ortiz’s health took a turn for the worse. She wasn’t eating properly from being so busy and was eventually checked into the hospital for dehydration.
“There will be times I won’t eat because I’m busy working myself between school, work at ShopRite and the radio,” Ortiz says. “It’s embarrassing to say that I pushed myself to that level. I kept promising myself that I wouldn’t let it happen again, but this following semester it happened again. This time I knew something was really off since I had been eating.”
Ortiz underwent multiple tests, including one for lupus — an autoimmune disease that has put her mother out of work since late 2003. Knowing her family history, Ortiz was terrified of being diagnosed with the same illness, just months before she was set to graduate.
“My body was weak, my legs were sore… I really thought my life was done,” Ortiz says. “I was deciding whether to drop out this semester or stick it out. My advisor told me I should drop doing the radio, but my one passion is being a radio host. Of course I want to excel in school, but there’s a lot of thoughts going through my head.”
Ortiz was eventually diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease that turns the immune system against the body’s own tissues. Recently, Ortiz’s health has put a dent in her wallet, as the fatigue and soreness that comes with the condition makes it difficult to keep up with her busy shifts at ShopRite. Her paychecks have varied due to frequent call-outs for doctors visits and taking time to rest.
Though her condition isn’t severe enough to call for medication, she receives vitamin B12 shots every month to boost her energy levels. But because Ortiz just recently switched from her father’s insurance to the plan offered by ShopRite, she doesn’t know yet if the cost of the shots will be covered by her new insurer.
“I haven’t gotten a bill yet so I hope it’s covered,” Ortiz says. “I don’t even want to look at my bank account because I’m scared. But if I can go to the ATM and take a little out without getting declined, that means I’m doing well.”
Despite the steady work relationship, Ortiz doesn’t want to inform her employer of her health condition out of fear that they may fire her.
“Being there nine years probably costs the company a lot of money,” Ortiz says. “If my body’s aching me during my shift, I just let that body ache and soak in the tub when I get home. If I don’t feel well, I’m always pushing myself to keep going. I’m like, ‘Girl, you’ve got an hour left. You can do this,’ and just push myself even harder.”
As a digital media production major, Ortiz immerses herself at WFNP The Edge, the campus radio station, for most of her day. Each night come 5 p.m., she’s no longer a student, or a part-time cashier, but an FM-certified radio news director.
She sits zoned into her office computer each night, with her textbooks, jacket and lunch box strewn about her desk as she scours local news networks to catch the latest headlines. She types away feverishly, piecing together the night’s broadcast as fellow radio employees bop in and out of the office.
After crafting the news scripts for the broadcasters, she deals them out and they all make their way across the hall to the studio. Carefully studying their segments and ironing out the pronunciation of foreign names or cities they don’t want to butcher on air, the team shuffles into the cramped, grey foam-padded room to get started. The clock strikes 7 p.m. and the headphones come on.
“Good evening and welcome to Edge News, I’m Mercedes Ortiz joined by Dylan Hirsh and Sage Higgins,” she says into the microphone. “Here are tonight’s top headlines.”
She’s done this countless times before, something that has given her a look and sound of comfort on air. Behind the microphone, Ortiz’s enthusiasm and passion for radio shines across her face as she barrels off the night’s news.
As the other broadcasters take heed with their segments, Ortiz watches over them with a careful eye. She’s checking to make sure no one is cutting into anyone else’s spot too early, or stumbling over a phrase without proper articulation. But when the commercial break hits, her hearty, full-bellied laugh echoes throughout the studio as she cracks jokes with her colleagues and takes Snapchat selfies from behind the microphone, telling her followers to tune in for the rest of the show.
On Tuesday nights like tonight, however, Ortiz remains on the airwaves after the news broadcast for “The Corner,” her own on-air talk show. While most DJs at the station opt for music-dominated shows, Ortiz turns her 7:30 slot into a fully produced and planned listening experience complete with musical guests and interviews with local musicians and artists.
“I remember hearing The Breakfast Club, Cherry Martinez and Malikha Mallette, and was like, ‘That could be me. I could do that.’” – Mercedez Ortiz
Signing on the air yet again, her small frame sits poised and confident in the comfort of a large black armchair. She effortlessly glides up the soundboard levels as she kicks off her last show for the semester.
These shows, she says, are priming her path for bursting through the airwaves in the professional radio world one day soon. She’s already done internships at WBAI in New York City, Cumulus Broadcasting in Poughkeepsie and is pursuing one more for next semester.
As one of seven children, Ortiz will become the first of her family to earn a bachelor’s degree when she graduates this May. While the journey has been a painstaking chess-match of nearly a decade, Ortiz has carefully planned her moves with the extra time she’s taken.
“When I was at that [Americorps] desk job, I was listening to New York City radio every day,” Ortiz says. “I remember hearing The Breakfast Club, Cherry Martinez and Malikha Mallette, and was like, ‘That could be me. I could do that.’ I envisioned being in media and becoming a big name. It’s taking me a lot longer to get my degree, but I know what I want to do and how to get there.”
To Ortiz, success resides in no place other than New York City. She’s always keeping an eye out for potential radio opportunities that can help her climb the way to the top. She’s also looking forward to graduation, despite worries of going on the job market and facing queries from potential employers.
“There’s always that one question I feel they’ll ask, in the back of my head: what took you so long to finish school? And I have to tell them my story,” she says. “Will they respect it? Will they not? I don’t know…. This is my story, and my time. I’m doing what I want and I’m going to build myself up. And that’s it.”