For public health data analytics and psychology double-major Isabela Ortiz Caso ’25, being involved on campus takes many forms.
Ortiz Caso is a part of the Social Chair Committee of the Latin American Student Union and is the art and the empowerment chair for Political Latinx United for Movement and Action in Society. In her freshman year, she also served as the secretary and public relations chair for William and Mary Fighting for Immigrant Rights and Equity, otherwise known as WMFIRE.
“Immigration and immigrant rights and equity has always been something that’s been very important to me,” Ortiz Caso said. “I’m an immigrant myself. I immigrated from Cuba. So understanding the struggles and, kind of like, the language that we use — especially in a college setting — as soon as I got here, I was like, ‘Why are we talking like this? And treating people in a way that is kind of condescending and dehumanizing.’”
Upon arriving on campus, Ortiz Caso began her work with WMFIRE and working with students to organize events on campus.
“My attention immediately grasped to WMFIRE,” Ortiz Caso said. “We did a lot of events, namely, they have events every Saturday to teach college students and sometimes faculty, they sometimes show up. It’s called how to be kind of like a ‘better advocate.’ A lot of advocacy work. My attention then shifted to PLUMAS just because the goal resonated a lot more with me.”
Ortiz Caso was pleasantly surprised by the class of 2027’s involvement in PLUMAS, recalling that the class of 2025 did not have as many students participating in events.
“We have a lot more students coming from not just different backgrounds, but different socioeconomic and immigrant [backgrounds],” Ortiz Caso said. “And it’s just nice to see different Latinx-identifying students coming from different parts.”
As an immigrant from Cuba, Ortiz Caso acknowledged that her experience differs from many other immigrant students on campus.
“I’m a Cuban resident, so my pathway to citizenship is different because of my refugee status,” Ortiz Caso said. “So I don’t go through as many obstacles, and I do kind of want to mention that because it’s important to know that there are a lot of things that differentiate between each Latin American country. And Cuba happens to be one of those countries where [we are] in refugee status just because of our political system. I don’t want to say an advantage, but it definitely changes the way that we go through our immigration process compared to other Latinx students.”
Ortiz Caso said coming to campus was a bit difficult due to the amount of required paperwork. She described the process as time-consuming.
“I think also just being in classrooms where geopolitics comes into play, and organizations on campus where you’re advocating for not just political asylum, but everybody to have a right to come within the country,” Ortiz Caso said. “It’s kind of sometimes frustrating to have to explain to people where your background is. And I do like to acknowledge that I don’t have an accent. You wouldn’t know if I told you. And that’s another part of when I’m on campus and I have these conversations is the attitude changes really quickly when I mention it.”
As a member of PLUMAS, Ortiz Caso said her organization’s advocacy work extends beyond immigration. Last year, she said the organization also worked with Sodexo employees in unionization efforts.
“We are basically an advocacy and movement-oriented organization on campus,” Ortiz Caso said. “You don’t have to be Latinx to join. Most of our current issues that we’re advocating and participating for are not Latinx-oriented. But when you look at the overall scope, immigration is a Latinx issue.”
In addition to her work with PLUMAS and LASU, Ortiz Caso also works with William and Mary law students at the Immigration Clinic. She said helping out at the clinic takes many forms, from providing translation services to helping families navigate government forms.
Ortiz Caso said she hopes her advocacy leads the College administration to acknowledge critical issues. Though the College has many diversity, equity and inclusivity initiatives, Ortiz Caso recognizes a need to examine these initiatives and ensure that students of color actually find them helpful.
Reflecting on her involvement on campus, Ortiz Caso said the best part is seeing the fruits of her labor pay out.
“Not in the, you know, ‘Oh, yeah, I did that,’ but it’s just kind of seeing the engagement,” Ortiz Caso said. “And then from that engagement, seeing how many students we are actually impacting and that they want to get involved. And I think with anything on campus, yeah, you should want to do events and yes, you should want to actually advocate for a change. But that change has to be continuous. And with that mentality, having this many students, like, being involved is really, really important to me.”
Ortiz Caso values making connections with other students outside the classroom. As a data analytics student, Ortiz Caso said many students are not represented in many of her more advanced classes.
“I think as you get older, you’re like, ‘Yeah, I don’t–I wouldn’t want anybody else to go through what I did,’” Ortiz Caso said
She said she tries to help underclassmen navigate the college experience and advocate for themselves, especially those from a first-generation college student background.
“I only have one more year left,” Ortiz Caso said. “So it’s kind of also just showing underclassmen how to do work. Like, not everybody knows how to organize, and not everybody knows how to advocate for themselves. It’s a hard thing to do, especially when you come from a first-gen background. You’re navigating the spaces that purposely use, like, advanced language to kind of deter you or make you feel a little bit like you don’t belong.”
As an upperclassman, Ortiz Caso said that she has more experience advocating for herself and knowing who to contact for an issue, which could be an intimidating experience for underclassmen.
“I think as you get older, you’re like, ‘Yeah, I don’t–I wouldn’t want anybody else to go through what I did,’” Ortiz Caso said.
In her advocacy work, she has also come into contact with institutional obstacles at the College.
“When it comes to any type of advocacy work, I think our first retaliation is honestly our institution,” Ortiz Caso said. “I think institution has always been an issue, and it will probably continue to be an issue until we have better leadership. And we have — not better staff — but we have staff that is willing to advocate for students as well without it feeling like, you know, it’s a beneficial agreement like you help me and I’ll help you.”
Ortiz Caso points out the history of the College as an example.
“Especially with the background in history of William and Mary, we cannot keep perpetuating the same type of violence and the same type of neglect and just plain out disrespect that they have had kept going for different marginalized groups on campus. So I think that’s probably been the biggest part,” she said.
Apart from her advocacy work, Ortiz Caso has also studied abroad in Costa Rica and Spain, where she conducted research on the COVID-19 pandemic and mental health resources for college students. As a Latinx student, she said her experience in Costa Rica was more favorable than in Spain.
“It’s difficult just because when you go into museums and you kind of see the artifacts from Latin America, you’re like, ‘Okay,’” Ortiz Caso said. “But just kind of having a conversation. And, when I speak, I don’t have a Spanish accent. So that initial, like, ‘You’re Latinx,’ and I’m just like — It’s very interesting to see the lack of education from like a colonial power.”
To balance her many commitments and her private life, she said having friends and faculty on campus as a support system is crucial. Ortiz Caso said she is lucky to have a faculty advisor from a similar background as hers.
After graduation, she hopes to either enter the workforce or further her education in health psychology. She wants to work with immigrants and potentially become a therapist.
Regarding advice for other students, she shared the phrase her parents have always told her: “Échale ganas,” which is a motivational phrase meaning “give it your all.”
“You know, just keep going,” Ortiz Caso said. “It gets hard. It really does get hard. But know when to advocate for yourself and keep pouring into who pours in you and what you think is worth advocating for. And then, you have to — like within current times — I think you really have to step outside of, ‘Oh, I’m scared to advocate’ mentality. And just because advocacy can be different, can look different in many different people. You don’t just have to be in a protest. You can do the work.”
Ortiz Caso encourages students to value their time on campus, finding classes that spark their interests.
“But also take care of yourself and take classes that you actually want to take and learn from,” Ortiz Caso said. “You don’t get your undergrad experience twice. So even though you may not be having the best experience, finding a professor in a class that you really like can really make or break it.”