As early as 1899, Whittier graduated its first African-American student, George Anthony, who went on to become a physician. Later, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, Whittier student J. Stanley Sanders ‘63 would become the first African-American student in nearly 60 years to win a Rhodes Scholarship. In the 1920s, despite a rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Southern California, Whittier continued to enroll significant numbers of not only African-American and Pacific Islander students, but international students as well (by 1923, the school had enrolled four Russian students—one of whom was a woman). Today, the enrollment at Whittier College is truly aligned with the changing demographics of America; while other institutions grapple with access and attracting diverse populations, Whittier College boasts a student body that is cosmopolitan, with more than 40% of its population of mixed ethnicities and cultural origins.
A high school dropout who for three years was a self-proclaimed “hobo” who “rode the rails” around America’s middle states, Martin would later make education his personal quest and cause. Born in Wichita to an impoverished family, he primarily spoke Spanish in the home and found English difficult to learn; as a result, he was ridiculed by his elementary schoolteachers. After his self-selected hiatus from school, he returned with fervor, enrolling and completing high school and winning his bid for student body president. He began a college program but left to join the Marines in World War II. Following, he pursued the remainder of his education at Whittier College, graduated, and later returned to join its faculty. During his tenure, he wanted to ensure the academic success and aspirations of other Latino students—those like him who had the drive to succeed—and so established the Center for Mexican-American Affairs at Whittier College, an institution that would spawn several related programs not only at Whittier, but within the region and across the country. He is personally credited with the success of building Whittier’s Latino student population, and several alumni called him mentor, friend, “El Jefe.”
In 2010, only months after his passing, a district in Wichita opened a brand new elementary school, named in his honor.
Though Martin Ortiz’s era as a student at Whittier reflected a small percentage of enrolled Hispanic students, the overall record of Whittier College’s diverse enrollment tells an interesting story.