Fellows in the Field: A conversation with Cleveland Foundation Public Service Fellowship alumnus Olivia Ortega

Group portrait of Cleveland Public Service Fellows
Olivia Ortega, pictured first row, third from right, with the other members of the 2016-17 Cleveland Foundation Public Service Fellowship cohort.

By Sinegugu Gasa, Cleveland Foundation Public Service Fellow for Community Narrative and Engagement

Launched in 2016, the Cleveland Foundation Public Service Fellowship brings together talented, emerging leaders from across the country and immerses them in the work of Cleveland’s public sector, providing them an opportunity to develop their skills, enhance their networks, and jumpstart a career in public service over the course of a 12-month paid fellowship. In this blog, we talk to Olivia Ortega, a member of the inaugural cohort of Cleveland Foundation Public Service Fellows, who is now the director of government advocacy at Greater Cleveland Partnership. Olivia shares her experience in the fellowship program and how it’s impacted her career journey since.

Get to know Olivia:

Go-to spot for favorite foods in Cleveland: Local West has consistently good fast-casual food.

What makes Cleveland a premier destination for young professionals: It’s a smaller city, so that equals a small pond. You have greater opportunities to build relationships with whoever you want.

Advice for recent college grads who are just beginning their careers: If you hate your work, lean into it. No one is going to show up and hand you a platter with a perfect and fulfilling job. There will be times when you feel bored and uninterested with certain aspects of the job you thought you wanted. No matter what happens, always try to add value. Remember people will say no to you. Learn to take constructive criticism and use your experiences to learn and grow.

Self-care tip for balancing work and life: Therapy!

Plans for the future: Right now, I am interested in changing the ways that we think of things like housing and wealth. I care about issues related to race, equity and wealth-building mechanisms for communities that need it the most. My personal ambition is to take the next several years to learn the ins and outs of running a successful organization.

Why did you initially decide to participate in the Public Service Fellowship?

The Cleveland Foundation did outreach to Case Western Reserve University, and I heard about the fellowship through my colleagues when I was a college student working for the Center for Civic Engagement at the university. Before graduating college, I applied for 70+ jobs. The job market was tough in 2016. At the time, I did not know how to fully use the resources and networks I had. I knew that I wanted to work in government, but I wasn’t sure how. Naturally I was excited about the opportunity to work for Cleveland City Council through the Public Service Fellowship.

How did the fellowship experience help you grow professionally?

Being a part of the 2017 cohort with other young professionals helped tremendously. My cohort had diverse, talented and smart peers, and I learned a lot from them. I am an introvert, and during my fellowship the foundation encouraged us to attend a lot of community events. This helped me to build my own confidence and communication skills as a professional. There was a particular professional development session where we had to do an elevator pitch in front of a group of people. The pitch was recorded, and we had to sit with our peers while we watched the video playback of ourselves and received feedback. It was an intense and worthwhile experience.  

What are some of your most memorable experiences as a fellow?

I met my best friend through the fellowship, who now has a career in New York. The first Women’s March took place during my fellowship year, and all the fellows met downtown and participated in the march as a group.

What were some of the more challenging aspects of your fellowship experience?

I came in really motivated to do work that matters, but the thing to keep in mind is that sometimes, you can come in as a young person and you receive a lot of “noes.” I also had imposter syndrome and compared myself to others. Ultimately, I learned to accept myself and find value, even in the difficult experiences. I leaned into the Cleveland Foundation staff during my struggles, and they served as neutral resource. They provided me with the support that I needed to push ahead and be able to do the work that I love.

Can you comment on your career aspirations right out of college and how they relate to the work that you are currently doing?

In college I knew I wanted to work for people through a public service job. My family was in the military and worked for the government. The public sector was interesting to me as I wanted to work for a community that I really cared about. I also had an interest in working for organizations that are mission driven and that value equity.

Can you tell us a little about the Greater Cleveland Partnership and the work you do as an organization?

Greater Cleveland Partnership is the chamber of commerce for the region. Our work is focused on economic development through advocacy, strategic initiatives, and member services. We advocate for policies at the local and state government level that directly impact the community.

What advice would you give to someone considering applying for the Cleveland Foundation Public Service Fellowship?

Tell a story about who you are. Tell a story about why you want to do what you want to do. Think clearly about finding your unique skills and talents and then find a way to match that up with the opportunities available to you. During the fellowship, lean heavily on the support network you have. Don’t be nervous to rely on people. Push yourself to connect with other fellows. Spend as much time as possible together – you will not have such a wonderful opportunity again. Use the chance to make the long-lasting friendships.

To learn more about the Cleveland Foundation Public Service Fellowship, visit: www.ClevelandFoundation.org/Fellowship.