By Dominique Sinatra
Previously a wildlife and fisheries major at Humboldt State University, later pursuing a master’s in education and teaching credential in Colorado, Jennifer Ortega is a lecturer in the department of recreation administration and environmental education.
“I was working as a fishery biologist and he [Ortega’s husband, Justus] was smoke jumping [forest firefighter who parachutes to locations hard to reach], but was coming back and deciding to go to grad school,” says Jennifer Ortega. “We were dating and we ended up getting pregnant with Jasmine.”
This is when she realized she was moving to Colorado to follow Justus Ortega since she was having his baby.
“It was a challenge for both of us,” says Justus Ortega. “The traumatic experience of suddenly you’re going to be a mother and your partner is saying they are going to Colorado.”
She is the mother of two, Jasmine and Jude with husband Justus Ortega who also is a teacher at Humboldt State University. He is a professor of kinesiology as a 10-year track.
“She is an exceptionally adaptive person,” says Justus Ortega. “She can walk into a lot of environments and figure out how to make something work.” At this point Justus Ortega had decided he was going to also pursue his PhD.
“I suddenly realized we were going to remain in Colorado for another who knows how long,” says Jennifer Ortega. “I was like what am I doing, what do I want to do.”
This is when she decided to pursue her master’s in education and teaching credential. Teaching at a sixth grade school it was required that every student go to the outdoor school up in the Rocky Mountains.
“That’s when I realized this is what I do, I’m an environmental educator,” says Jennifer Ortega. “That’s when I realized this is my passion.”
Wrapping things up in Colorado, Justus Ortega landed a job at Humboldt State University and Jennifer Ortega immediately got a job at Redwood National and State Parks as ‘Ranger Jen,’ an interpreter. She then started coordinating programs at the Natural History museum, later being offered a spot at the university as a lecturer. Starting Fall 2012 was the beginning of her new chapter with environmental education and interpretation.
“I have been so fortunate, the doors have just opened,” says Jennifer Ortega. “Everything is in around science education, environmental education, and this connection to human systems and natural systems. Where they intersect that is what I want people to understand.”
Coming home from a memorial service she asked her husband, “What do you want people to say he was famous for?” He then in turned asked her and she replied, “I want them to say I was a rock star of an environmental educator at Humboldt County,” says Jennifer Ortega.
Justus Ortega explains that she has found a niche in environmental education because she brings a level of organization that is needed to connect bigger ideas and weave them together. He continues to say that it is something that she excels at, and when thrown setbacks she immediately falls into the next niche.
“She is constantly adapting to new environments and creates them,” says Justus Ortega. “I don’t think she recognizes that she creates a lot of this stuff with herself for herself.”
“She creates those future opportunities and is really good at maintaining relationships in the community and those relationships lead too new opportunities,” says Justus Ortega.
Along with co-instructor Jennifer Tarlton, a lecturer in the department of environmental science and management, she too has known Jennifer for about 10 years.
“I approached her about helping teach my environmental communications course,” says Tarlton. “We co-taught that class for a number of years and then I brought her into co-teach my environmental education and interpretation course.”
Tartlon recognizes that she is innovative in the terms of forward thinking about what is in the best interest of her students in terms of competency and to demonstrate that for their future careers.
“She has her foot in each department and can bridge that between each department,” says Tarlton. “There is a lot of overlap between recreation administration and environmental education and I send a lot of my students to her for supplementary courses.”
“I do teach for two different programs and I really like it because I gets students that come in and they are focused on recreation, but some of them really want the science and land management,” says Jennifer Ortega. She knows how to differentiate between the students’ needs whether it is a recreation or an environmental focus.
Jennifer Ortega considers her work, work but she also takes time to make sure that she balances her leisure time to be the most productive worker that she can be. That sometimes she does need to recharge her battery, but then is re-energized to get the next thing done.
“My husband and I are planning a Tough Mudder,” says Jennifer Ortega.
“She does crazy activities like crawls through the mud and that isn’t something I would do,” says Tarlton.
Tarlton explains her as living life to the fullest and that is something to really admire. She doesn’t let life slip by and goes after her dreams to make them happen. She is willing to work hard to get what she wants.
Jennifer Ortega is also thinking about going back and getting her EdD, which is more in her interest as it pertains more to education, and is more relevant to her teaching.
“I would like to do it at University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, that was the first university to start teaching environmental education,” says Jennifer Ortega.
“It’s like a full circle to finish this doctoral degree at the beginning of the environmental education world,” says Jennifer Ortega. “I could have this, this is reasonable and something I could do.”
“I need to nurture something so why not nurture my passion,” says Jennifer Ortega. With her husband just about maxed out at the career that he can do at the university and her kids growing up, this is the next step.