Interviewing Irene Ortega in the midst of peak snack hours is a tumultuous affair – our conversation is interspersed with various greetings and farewells from the throng of students on their way in or out of Collins dining hall, all of whom seem to treat Irene like an old friend. Irene, a CMC employee for the past 16 years, sits in her usual position at the Collins front desk, reciprocating these greetings with a smile and well wishes of her own, often addressing students by name, occasionally giving and receiving hugs.
This is how we all know Irene, perched at the entrance of Collins, her warm greeting momentarily penetrating the depths of our sleep-deprived, week-night despair, her wide smile almost Gatsby-esque in its ability to know, understand and reassure us. Still, there is more to Irene than just this idyllic image; there is a persistent sense of character, a strong emphasis on family, and a genuine kindness in her that pervades all her interactions, both at work and at home.
When asked what she does in her free time, Irene promptly begins to rave about her three sisters, her husband (who she married at 18-years-old), her three daughters, and her nine grandchildren. It is clear that, for Irene, free time is family time.
“I like to hang out with my grandchildren,” she says, “I make them Mickey Mouse pancakes with fresh strawberries and whipped cream. I’d make that for my husband and his friends, and my kids and their friends, and now for my grandchildren.”
Irene mentions that, when not with her immediate family, she spends much of her time with her two oldest friends, whom she has known for the past 37 years. She laughs: “It’s good to see my friends – dealing with nine grandkids can get tiring.”
Indeed, as a recently diagnosed anemic, Irene is no stranger to fatigue. “I’m tired and have no energy much of the time,” she admits – though you would be hard-pressed to glean this from her the way she conducts herself. She confesses to working especially hard to combat exhaustion during her hours spent on campus, feeling that it would not do well to appear less than enthusiastic about her job.
“Well, how would you like it if I was just tired and in a bad mood all the time?” she says, “I can’t do that!”
Her strategy for staying energetic and positive during work, it turns out, is remarkably simple. “I just know I have to be here and do my job well,” she says, adding: “During quiet moments, when it’s not as busy, that’s when I can rest a little.”
Not one to dwell on the negative for too long, Irene changes the subject by reaffirming what our conversation began with: the importance of family.
“I enjoy coming here; it’s not really like a job.” She pauses, as if to contemplate the validity of her next statement before voicing it out loud. Finally, she adds, “It’s almost like a family.” I can see in her demeanor that this is not a term she uses lightly – she who has so much love for her own family, her close friends. I can tell that it’s a big deal to have Irene’s loyalty.
“I get attached to students,” she says, “I want to get to know kids’ names so that the atmosphere feels more friendly and personal – it makes it feel more like home.”
She continues, now laughing a little: “Being with you guys is great – it’s like raising kids, but without the financial responsibility.”
Her parting words are that of advice: “What you need to get anywhere is your education,” she says. “It’ll pay off at the end, just keep going.”
For her part, Irene has played a larger role in our education than I think she knows. By simply observing Irene, I have discovered universal, invaluable truths – that a friendly greeting can make a bad day a good one, that it pays to do your job well, even when you are tired, and that ‘family’ as a concept is not just fluid but boundless in wake of a kind heart.