“Some people think of ‘dreamers’ with a negative connotation. So we want to rebrand the word,” says Marco Ortiz Sanchez. “A true dreamer is someone who dreams big, has big ideas, wants more and aspires more.” Steve Zylius / UCI

Marco Ortiz Sanchez, a second-year business administration major at UCI, learned the value of hard work at a very young age. He came to the United States from Mexico with his family when he was only 6 months old. They lived in a small apartment in San Diego; Ortiz recalls sleeping in blankets on the floor because they did not own a mattress.

As a child he began lending a hand in his father’s landscaping enterprise, translating for clients. As he got older and the company grew, Ortiz helped manage its finances. His family’s quality of life gradually improved, reinforcing his strong work ethic – and love of business. Still, Ortiz never stopped dreaming of a better future.

Part of his dream was someday attending UCI. He remembers visiting the campus during middle school and thinking, “I see myself here.” After learning that The Paul Merage School of Business was highly ranked, Ortiz made it his goal to attend. In high school, he took rigorous International Baccalaureate classes, participated in extracurricular activities and took advantage of teachers’ guidance. Again, the hard work paid off, with UCI admitting him in the fall of 2017.

And Ortiz has not let up. Although he still assists his father on weekends – and is busy with academics – he has held multiple leadership roles on campus and beyond. Ortiz is currently a peer mentor at the UCI Dream Center, which serves undocumented students – often called “Dreamers” – protected under the U.S.’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.

As an incoming DACA freshman, he says, “I worried that I wouldn’t be able to do normal things because I’d always have to be scared. You feel like you’re constantly being watched or that you have to be on your best behavior because, I felt, one wrong move and everything would be over.”

The UCI Dream Center was a lifesaver. “It’s just a feeling you get that you belong and aren’t alone,” Ortiz says. “Other people will be there to help you.” He gives a lot of credit to former center coordinator Ana Miriam Barragan: “She helped me be fearless and develop myself as a leader. Without her, my future in business might have been impossible.” (Ortiz hopes to join a Big Four accounting firm, go into advising, start his own company and become a CEO.)

“Marco has been involved in the Dream Center as a program participant, peer mentor and student staff member. In addition to his work here, he’s been very involved in advocacy – both in the broader UCI community and outside UCI,” says center director Oscar Teran. “In all these different roles and efforts, the consistent thing I have seen from Marco is a commitment to empowering others.”

The support Ortiz received from the center’s staff members and mentors – whom he describes as being like a family – inspired him, in turn, to help others.

Through an outreach effort called Encuentros Leadership, which Ortiz heard about through the Dream Center, he was able to mentor 10 at-risk Latino high school boys in San Diego last summer. He still keeps in touch with them, many of whom are now attending college.

This summer, Ortiz will be an adviser and panelist for LIFEvest, a residential financial literacy program run by the UCI Paul Merage School of Business’ Center for Investment and Wealth Management. The weeklong experience will teach eighth- and ninth-graders from underserved communities in Orange County the value of education, budgeting and saving.

Ortiz also recently had the privilege of being the only undergraduate representative from UCI at the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement’s first conference, “#SpeechMatters: The Future of Free Expression on Campus.” The event took place March 21 in Washington, D.C., and he was one of 32 UC students present.

Other attendees included UC President Janet Napolitano; UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman; New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni; and Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division. “I felt pretty empowered coming from my background and being in a space like that,” Ortiz says. “It felt like this whole moment of awe.”

He believes the antidote to hate speech is “more good speech.” “Whether you disagree with someone or not,” he says, “it’s important to communicate and provide facts and be able to have civil discourse without attacking one another – to detach from some emotions, because that’s when we get defensive. We need to be able to think logically and just talk.”

Fusing much of what he has learned so far, the sophomore even created a startup with fellow Anteater Fredy Pedro that made it to the second round of the highly competitive UCI New Venture Competition this spring. Inspired by the work being done in the Dream Center, their concept, dubbed Sea and Sky, would provide resources and advocacy for anyone with a dream, not just undocumented students. Its slogan: “Without borders.”

“Some people think of ‘Dreamers’ with a negative connotation,” Ortiz says. “So we want to rebrand the word. A true dreamer is someone who dreams big, has big ideas, wants more and aspires more.”