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Communication, conservation lead Ortiz to Yale

Sitting outside a recreational baseball game with her mom, senior Maya Ortiz began logging in to check her last two college application results – Brown and Yale. Ortiz couldn’t get the email from Brown to load, so she decided to try to get her Yale results on her iPad. Once she logged in, confetti flew across her screen.

“I was just kind of in shock,” Ortiz said. “But the days after, I just kept refreshing to make sure that the letter still confirmed acceptance, make sure the confetti was flying. I just had to have it confirmed.”

Ortiz, who will compete at the UIL State Academic Meet next week in Editorial Writing, is a two-time NSPA Photojournalist of the Year, a two-year member of the Houston Zoo’s Teen Leadership Council and ranked No. 3 in the Class of 2024. Next year, she will attend Yale to study Ecology & Evolutionary Biology.

For a student who used to have trouble holding conversations and making eye contact with adults in middle school, Ortiz has changed dramatically. In high school, she often gave presentations to packed rooms of student journalists at state and national conventions. She also spoke with hundreds of Houston Zoo guests about conservation and animals as well as taught Houston-area teens how to become the next generation of conservation heroes.

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“Looking back at the past four years and who I was before joining journalism, I think that’s been the greatest success,” Ortiz said. “Just being able to see how well I’m communicating now and what I’ve been able to do for this community.”

One of the stories she worked on this year was coach Eric Coovert’s journey with cancer. Ortiz first covered Coovert when he won Teacher of the Year in 2023. She then reached out over the summer asking if she could help share Coovert’s story and battle with cancer in the Kingwood Park Times. Ortiz then covered his whole journey, from the original diagnosis to his eventual victory.

In January, Ortiz was on the red carpet event as a correspondent for Humble ISD when Coovert was awarded the Inspiration Award at the Houston Sports Awards Show. She interviewed Coovert on the red carpet. He spotted her again later in a smaller press conference after he received his award.

“I just remember seeing her, and it made me have all these memories going back to August – when I told all my classes (about my diagnosis) to the article she wrote about me and what I’m going through,” Coovert said. “And so I think it was that moment I got excited and then I kind of lost my composure. And I said, ‘Maya!’ and I raised my hand in an entire room full of journalists. I called out one person, and that was Maya.”

Ortiz never expected to find herself in front of the camera on the red carpet interviewing Coovert or Astros manager Joe Espada. But so much has changed since she first joined journalism.

She was not a talker, but she liked being behind the lens of a camera. Her mom, journalism adviser Megan Ortiz, suggested she give it a try. She originally started photographing girls soccer games when her older sister was playing.

Maya Ortiz helps teach camper Anutu Hood at the Kingwood Park Summer Media Camp in July 2023. She was the 2021 and 2022 NSPA Photojournalist of the Year. (James Pham)

“I wouldn’t be doing journalism if it weren’t for my mom,” Ortiz said. “It was way out of my wheelhouse when I joined high school, like, never would have been something I would have even considered. And then, just having Kathleen, my older sister, as my first editor-in-chief. I always looked up to her, specifically in the role she held in this program and the success she had.”

It didn’t take long before Maya started doing more than taking pictures. She became interested in telling people’s stories through writing. She began talking to people, and telling their stories like Luc Wehby, Gina Sanchez and Ashton Smith.

“I think the big thing that I learned since freshman year would be communication,” Ortiz said. “Learning how to talk to people. And there’s still moments where, like, I get really anxious. There have been multiple times this year where, I don’t know if I’d call it social anxiety, but I get a little nervous when talking to people. And I’m like, ‘It’s been four years, Maya. You’ve been doing this for four years. Grow up. You can figure this out, I promise.’”

She has interviewed hundreds of people, talked to countless Houston Zoo guests and tried to defuse stressful situations as an umpire at softball games.

Those who have worked closely with her have seen the change. Umpire Doug Haley first met Ortiz when she was 9 years old and pitching in KGSA. He followed her playing career and then hired her when she started umpiring.

He saw her go from quiet to confident on the field, and he was one of the first people she texted after she got into Yale.

KGSA umpire Doug Haley jokes with Maya Ortiz during her first game umping at KGSA in 2021 on the 8U fields. Haley first met Maya when she was playing softball at age 9. (Kathleen Ortiz)

“You just wouldn’t believe it, but I knew she was getting in,” Haley said. “I was so overcome with joy and happiness. I am proud of her for the umpire that she has become and also I am proud of the young lady she is becoming. All the good things that are coming to her is because she has earned them. Yale is lucky to have her.”

In March, Ortiz went to New Haven, Conn., for “Bulldog Days” at Yale, where she spent two nights in the dorms with current students and met a number of incoming freshmen. She toured the campus, talked to the administrators, watched student performances and visited La Casa – a cultural house for Latino students. On one tour, the guide was currently in Ortiz’s planned major.

“It was really cool to hear about her experiences and then see all of the places and all of the resources available to me,” Ortiz said. “That was probably my favorite part – talking to people. Every part of being on campus was amazing.”

Ortiz also already met with the Yale Daily News editors and signed up for the club softball team. She looks forward to getting research experience her freshman year, possibly in ornithology – an area she researched as a founding member of the Bird-saving Campaign at the Houston Zoo.

“[I expect to see her] impacting thousands,” Coovert said. “I know if she puts her heart into it, just like anything she did here at Kingwood Park, then she’s going to be able to master that and be one of the best in that subject field.

“I can see it 10 years down the road. She is going to be on the top of her game. She’s going somewhere. She’ll be moving ladders and people in the right direction.”

This story was originally published on Park Times on May 10, 2024.