Syracuse University Magazine

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Oswaldo Ortega ’05

Fresh Thresholds

If Oswaldo Ortega had to rely on just one word to describe his life this past year, “new” would do nicely. He became a newly licensed architect in Maryland; partnered with a buddy from graduate school on a pro bono project to envision a new art and education center in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica; and relocated from Washington, D.C., to Chicago to take a new job at Gensler, a global architecture, design, and planning firm, where his work has a new focus on design—all of which has him feeling energized and grateful. “Honestly, I’m loving it all probably way too much,” says Ortega, who encountered even more new experiences on a recent business trip to Shanghai, including his first stay in a five-star hotel. “That’s the first time I’ve ever flown someplace where there was a guy waiting for me with a sign with my name on it. It was pretty great.” 

An earlier first came for Ortega as a high school student in Brooklyn, where his love for architecture originated. That interest led him to pursue a bachelor’s degree at the School of Architecture, where his leadership roles included founding the Society of Multicultural Architects and Designers. Following completion of a master’s degree in urban design and architecture at Columbia University in 2006, he joined the Washington, D.C., office of HOK, one of the world’s largest design practices. While there, he served as project architect for various office buildings, a biotech laboratory facility, and conceptual design packages for international clients. “I attributed my employment at HOK to SU for two reasons,” says Ortega, who also earned an advanced studies certificate in leadership and organizational development at Johns Hopkins University. “The first was that I was properly prepared to enter the workforce. The second was that there’s a strong alumni base at HOK with a successful track record. The alumni helped ease my transition from academia to the workforce and served as excellent mentors.”

Ortega also values having the opportunity to mentor others, often making himself available to SU students as a way to give back and stay connected to the University. In both Washington and Chicago, he has been actively involved in the national ACE (Architecture, Construction, and Engineering) Mentoring Program, which seeks to inspire and encourage high school students to pursue careers in design and construction. Additionally, he volunteers for the Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonprofit organization that helps residents and communities in the Chicago region address the city’s planning and development challenges.  

Among the most fulfilling projects he has been involved in was a collaboration with his friend, Jason Pugh, to design a new home for the Lil Ragamuffin summer camp in Jamaica. “We flew down there in June 2013 to meet with local town folks and come up with some ideas,” says Ortega, who has two siblings and a cousin who are also SU alumni. “We talked to them about how to think about what they want and then nail down a list of activities and functions they would like to have in their new building.” The result was the creation of a 40-page vision document that shares the story of the camp and proposes a design for building the Blue Mountain Art Institute—a 6,500-square-foot cultural and educational hub that incorporates eco-friendly concepts in energy usage, water conservation, and land impact. “It was an amazing experience,” he says. “The whole process—of trying to help people who want a space but don’t know how to make it happen—was inspiring. I hope to do more of it in the future.” —Amy Speach