New Student Series Part 1: Meet Ashley Marissa Portillo

You may recall a recent blog post asking for our incoming Fall 2015 students to introduce themselves on the Admissions Blog. Since then, I’ve received several submissions from your fellow Seeple. (Thank you to everyone who’s participated!) To kick off this weekly series, let’s start with Ashley Marissa Portillo, a California native who likes to practice yoga and climb the Inca ruins (not necessarily at the same time). She’s concentrating in Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy, and hopes to work for the U.S. State Department as a Foreign Service Officer after graduating from SIPA. Below, you’ll find her responses to the New Student Survey.  

Full Name: Ashley Marissa Portillo
Program: Master of International Affairs
Concentration: Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy
Specialization: International Conflict Resolution
Anticipated Graduation Year: 2017
Hometown: Fountain Valley, California

Where did you attend college?
I graduated from the University of California, San Diego in 2011, with a double major in Latin American Studies and International Relations.               

What’s your professional background?
Upon completing my undergraduate studies four years ago, I began a career in the mortgage industry as a licensed loan officer and loan processor. Even though selling home loans has helped me grow professionally and personally, I have strayed from my true passion- promoting youth literacy and access to education at home and abroad. Two years ago, I took time off from my job to join the Peace Corps. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines, I was able to serve as an English Teacher and implement literacy programs in two different high schools in Bataan and Northern Samar.

Did you apply to SIPA to change careers or to gain experience in a career path you already have experience in?
I applied to SIPA for both of these reasons. Currently, I am preparing to leave my job in the home loan market with confidence that SIPA will propel me toward a career with the U.S. State Department or an intergovernmental organization abroad. Selling home loans in the private sector equipped me with the ability to sell a product, negotiate prices, and work with different personalities; but, I am prepared to apply these skills to a career closer to my heart. In college, I was deeply invested in volunteer work in San Diego, Peru, Nicaragua, and Tennessee; the Peace Corps was a way to get back on that track after college. SIPA will equip me with the experience and quantitative qualifications that will allow me to continue working as a global public servant.

What was your reaction when you found out you were accepted to SIPA?
I was on my lunch break at work, refreshing my email inbox every five minutes on my phone when I saw the SIPA email pop up. I was so nervous that simply opening the application portal to check my status proved to be quite a production—my hands were trembling! However, as soon as I read the congratulatory letter, I let out a huge sigh of relief and pure joy. The first person I called to share the news was my dad. He has been my biggest encourager and has instilled in me the drive to achieve big and, of course, my desire to keep learning.

[Photo courtesy of Ashley Marissa Portillo.]
[Photo courtesy of Ashley Marissa Portillo.]

Why did you say “yes” to SIPA?
I said “yes” to SIPA for various reasons. Without a doubt, I was drawn to the program’s prestige, clout, and accomplished professors who teach the courses. Yet, when I visited an informational session at the SIPA building last November, I was even more drawn to the diverse student body walking to and from class. The campus just “felt” right and I knew that I could greatly benefit from working together with students from varying American and international backgrounds. I did not experience this diversity and friendliness at the other campuses I visited on the East Coast. It was truly a wonderful first impression.

What do you most look forward to as a graduate student at SIPA?
I am looking forward to attending the most global public policy school in one of the most diverse cities in the world- SIPA in New York City! I am most excited about the opportunities, internships, leaders, keynote speakers, resources, and networking that are at my fingertips because I am now a SIPA student. I think the opportunities I can seize really abound and I am ready to share ideas and conversations with professors and students from all over the world.

Do you have any apprehensions about starting graduate school?
I am a little bit nervous to go back to school after four years of not being enrolled in a full-time academic program. In fact, the quantitative portion of the program intimidates me a little because I am certain it will be especially rigorous for someone, like myself, who has not taken a math class in recent years. However, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to challenge myself and build on my statistical skills. I also know that SIPA will provide me with all the necessary tools to help me succeed in the program.

What are your goals after SIPA?
After SIPA, I hope to either work for the U.S. State Department as a Foreign Service Officer, specifically a Public Diplomacy Officer, or to work for an international relief organization that serves areas which have been devastated by natural disasters.

If you could change one small thing about your community, country or the world, what would it be?
If I could change one small thing about the world, it would be to change the fact that many children in Mondragon, Philippines do not have access to a breakfast meal, which hinders their ability to concentrate or attend school. During my service in Mondragon, I witnessed tired students in my classes who had difficulty paying attention to the lesson plans and retaining the information because they were so hungry. It was heartbreaking.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.
I am an avid yogi and I practice Bikram Yoga almost every day. I have found that it helps me to better balance my life and priorities, and I hope to eventually become a certified yoga instructor. In addition to yoga, I am a traveling enthusiast whose most memorable travel experience was climbing the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru. That was hands-down the most majestic place that I have ever set foot on and I hope to go back one day.

If you’d like to participate in the series, please email us at sipa_new@columbia.edu to share your personal admissions story, what your summer vacation will entail/did entail, or anything else you think your peers would enjoy reading about! You may submit a blog post of your choosing, or submit the New Student Survey with pre-populated questions to get you started. And don’t forget to submit a photo or two to help us visualize your story!