Future veterinarian overcomes language barrier to find success at Iowa State

College student with textbooks

Valeria Miranda Ortiz spent a lot of time in animal science classes in Kildee Hall. Photos by Christopher Gannon. Larger image.

AMES, Iowa — No obstacle is too great for Valeria Miranda Ortiz.

This weekend, Miranda Ortiz will graduate from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in animal science.

While her family struggled financially, Miranda Ortiz says growing up in Puerto Rico was a “blessing.” She discovered her passion for animals as a child, watching every animal and veterinarian show she could find. Her parents always wanted her to go to college, but that came with the fear of how they would afford it.

An additional hurdle: Miranda Ortiz spoke no English.

“When I decided I wanted to become a veterinarian, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to study in Puerto Rico because we don’t have vet schools there,” she said. “I could do a bachelor’s there and then go to vet school, but I knew that was going to be even harder on me because I didn’t know any English.”

Instead, she decided the best route was to jump right into a U.S. university and learn the language wherever she ended up. At a college orientation in Puerto Rico, Miranda Ortiz spotted the Iowa State table. She was enthralled with the animal science program, the beauty of the campus and the kindness of the staff. Her mind was made up.

When she received her acceptance letter, her parents cried — from happiness that she could pursue her dreams as well as concern about finances and her not knowing the language. Miranda Ortiz pushed forward.

A second home at Iowa State

After graduating from high school, Miranda Ortiz moved to Ames to begin the Academic Program of Excellence (APEX), an immersive summer experience to help multicultural high-schoolers transition to Iowa State. She was also involved in TRIO, which provides academic and career support to income-eligible and first-generation students. Miranda Ortiz says APEX was transformational and calls the TRIO staff her “second family.”

In her first class her freshman year, Miranda Ortiz approached her instructor – Timothy Stewart, associate professor of natural resource ecology and management – with a translator app open on her phone. She told him about her worries that she wouldn’t understand anything. He responded with zero judgment: “How do you learn best?”

She’s a visual learner, so Stewart drew terminology as he talked about it in class. He worked with her after hours in his office. He recommended she attend a community organization for non-English speakers to learn the language. She recorded her professors’ lectures and would stay up late listening to the recordings to learn English.

Jodi Sterle, professor of animal science, connected Miranda Ortiz with another student who to help her with the course material. Sterle also stayed after hours to work with Miranda Ortiz.

“I feel like what makes a college is not the programs they offer, or the prettiest campus they could have, it’s the professors and staff,” Miranda Ortiz said. “These are professors that go above and beyond.”

English and beyond

Miranda Ortiz realized another passion here: learning languages. She has since learned American Sign Language and Portuguese with the goal of learning as many languages as possible to get to know a variety of people and to help more clients in her future veterinary practice.

Over spring break this year, she participated in a surgical experience in Costa Rica through the Veterinarians Without Borders student organization, during which she learned how to place catheters, intubate, neuter and spay animals. Some days she would serve as a surgical assistant, others as an anesthesiologist. Following graduation, she will head to Germany to learn about equestrian events, veterinary practices and professions. Miranda Ortiz points out the importance of getting involved beyond the classroom.

“Iowa State offers a lot of things, but you have to apply, you have to look for them,” she said. “it’s not like they’re just going to hand it to you.”

The Cyclone experience won’t stop once Miranda Ortiz graduates. Recently, her sister Denise was accepted to Iowa State. She will head here this fall to study apparel, merchandising, and design.

Miranda Ortiz says the hardest part has been being far from family.

“Because of our financial situation I couldn’t really travel for Thanksgiving, spring break and summer break,” she said. “I usually only see them once a year, typically at Christmas. It’s easier with time, but you don’t get used to it.”

She has been accepted to two veterinary schools and is currently deciding her plan for the next four years. After that, she plans to specialize in veterinary dermatology or surgery, another two to three years.

“A lot of people ask me if I get worried that it will take me years to finish. I always say, ‘What matters is not time, but what you do with it.’ So long as you are doing something you love, time does not matter,” she said.

“I feel like if I can make it happen, anyone can.”