During a Friday commencement ceremony, information technology major Julian Pina will cross the Addition Financial Arena stage to accept a doctoral degree, but it won’t be for his own accomplishments. Instead, he along with his 20-year-old sister, Julisa, and 36-year-old brother, Pedro Morrero, will accept an educational leadership doctorate on behalf of their mother — a dedicated nurturer in every aspect of her life — who lost her 10-year battle with breast cancer Jan. 8.
“My mom was the type of person if she was doing anything she wanted her kids to be there. … It’s almost like she’s getting her wish.” – Julian Pina, Maribel Ortiz-Pina’s son
“My mom was the type of person if she was doing anything she wanted her kids to be there. If she were here it would make her day if someone told her ‘Your kids can be with you when you walk across that stage.’ — It’s almost like she’s getting her wish,” says Julian, a 22-year-old junior at UCF.
Advancing Her Education
Maribel “Mari” Ortiz-Pina began pursuing her doctorate in 2010 and was about to begin the data-collection phase of her research, which she would have completed this summer, says Thomas Cox, an associate professor and the student’s advisor. Because she remained a dedicated student throughout her doctoral candidacy and was so close to finishing her dissertation, which was titled Insights into Diversity: A Mission Statement and its Impact on Institutions of Higher Education, Cox recommended her degree be awarded posthumously.
“Although I knew she was fighting a private battle, she never wanted it to be a consideration in the guidance I gave her or how hard I pushed her. She always completed the task I gave her even in her hardest times. Her strength never failed to amaze me,” Cox says.
While Ortiz-Pina was dealing with her own illness, Cox recalls she was always more concerned about the well-being of others. He says she was always professional, kindhearted and more determined than most students to earn her doctorate, which she was seeking because of her children.
“Having Mari’s children receive the degree could not be more appropriate because they were who she was earning it for,” Cox says. “She wanted them to be proud of her and also wanted to be the example for their lives. I can almost hear her saying, ‘Here you go, here is another gift I give you.’”
Ortiz-Pina’s was diagnosed with breast cancer began in 2008, three years after she began working at UCF’s College of Education as a program liaison and one year after she started earning a master’s degree in of business. Within two weeks she lost her hair. In 2009, the same year she completed her master’s, Julian says the cancer went into remission. In 2015, the cancer returned as Stage 4. Through the years she had surgery to remove a mass, underwent radiation therapy and endured chemotherapy.
“Sometimes my sister and I looked at [my mom] like she was a superhero, so much that we forgot she was sick. In the last year we started realizing she really sick,” Julian says.
“[My mom] was still moving around, going to work, taking care of me and my brother, and doing her homework in chemo.” – Julisa Pina, Maribel Ortiz’s daughter
Although she was only in the fourth grade at the time, Julisa recalls her mother remaining positive about her diagnosis and treatment. Ortiz-Pina was always looking toward the future.
“I wasn’t even sure what cancer was at that time,” Julisa says. “She tried to maintain normalcy. She always stayed doing everything she could. She was still moving around, going to work, taking care of me and my brother, and doing her homework in chemo.”
In early April, Julisa tweeted some photos from 2018 that showed her mother working on her research while undergoing treatment in the hospital. She said her mother would soon be recognized as Dr. Maribel Pina-Ortiz and stated that her mother remains her inspiration. The tweet went on to inspire thousands, with more than 6,000 retweets and nearly 44,000 likes by today.
Motivated to Support
As a lifelong learner, Ortiz-Pina always had an interest in education — both in earning one for herself and supporting others to earn their own. She once ran a vocation school with her husband in Massachusetts that helped teach Spanish-speaking immigrants some English and basic office computer skills.
“You would think that somebody going through something so major in life would put it on the backburner and take time off, but she just continued striving on.” – Erica Mendoza-Moreira, Maribel Ortiz-Pina’s friend and colleague
Her colleague Erica Mendoza-Moreira, academic support services coordinator for the College of Community Innovation and Education, says that aside from making her kids proud, part of the reason her friend wanted to pursue a doctorate was to advance her career. Ortiz-Pina wanted to move into a stronger administrative role to impact more faculty, staff and, most importantly, students. At the time of Ortiz-Pina’s passing she was the director for academic support services for UCF’s College of Engineering and Computer Science.
“You would think that somebody going through something so major in life would put it on the backburner and take time off, but she just continued striving on,” Mendoza-Moreira says. “When she was first diagnosed, I remember her sitting with us at lunch and her telling us about it. I was the one that was crying and she was comforting me. That’s just a testament to how strong she was.”
Julian and Julisa say their mother described her job as the perfect fit — an opportunity to make a meaningful impact in students’ lives, such as interdisciplinary studies graduate Junior Lovinsky ’17.
In May 2016, Lovinsky, who was an information technology major, met Ortiz-Pina when he needed help applying for an internship program that was already past its closing date. She helped him secure a position within the program at UCF’s Center for Research and Commercialization. Shortly after, Lovinsky says he began losing interest in his studies and considered dropping out. Ortiz-Pina convinced him to change his major to align with his interest in business and finish his degree. Now he works in sales at a software company in Miami.
“She was very motherly. She was pretty much my mother away from home. I lived 300 miles from home and Mari was there to really look out for me — she was pretty much a mom on campus for me.” Lovinsky says.
In the last month of her life, the hardworking and spirited Ortiz-Pina finally needed to slow down and could no longer work, Julian says. He says she was the type of person who would have remained working until she were 90.
During that time he recalls his grandmother visited and found one of his shirts with holes in it. When she went to throw it out, Ortiz-Pina insisted on keeping and fixing it because she knew it was her son’s favorite.
“If my mom could do all of that, the superhero that she was, we had a mom that did everything she could for us — that’s what she left us with.” – Julian Pina, Maribel Ortiz-Pina’s son
“She spent three days trying to put together two holes the shirt had, but she just couldn’t do it because her hands [were too weak,]” Julian says. “I would walk in and see her with the shirt trying to do it. I couldn’t offer help. She wasn’t like that, she wanted to do it herself. The fact that she made such an effort to do that when she couldn’t do a lot — that meant a lot to me. I still keep that shirt and it has the holes in it.”
On Friday afternoon, Ortiz-Pina’s three children — Peter, Julian and Julisa — will accept the culmination of their mother’s care, effort and relentless drive. With Peter pursuing a career in home and business restoration, Julian working toward his bachelor’s, and Julisa following Maribel’s footsteps by studying education, they plan to continue pushing themselves further to achieve as much as they can, the way their mother would expect them to do so.
“I wake up and think I’m not going to let her down. She did it. She achieved the highest level of education while raising two kids, working full time and maintain a household,” Julian says. “If my mom could do all of that, the superhero that she was, we had a mom that did everything she could for us — that’s what she left us with.”