Until 18 months ago, Maria Ortiz says she never had to search for a job in her life. As a highly skilled bilingual Ph.D. and the first ever Mexican-American woman to be admitted into Brigham Young University's graduate school of management, Ortiz was always the kind of woman universities would beg to come work for them.
After working and teaching in California for 20 years, Ortiz was recruited in 2007 for a highly specialized job at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She left her stable situation to take a chance on a new program she believed in, but the program folded due to budget cuts less than two years later in January 2009, right in the middle of the recession.
Ortiz frantically applied for jobs for the next 18 months, running through all $15,000 of her savings, exhausting all 99 weeks of unemployment benefits and eventually having to draw from Social Security and accept financial aid from her local church congregation to help pay the rent. Monday morning, on her 63rd birthday, Ortiz says she received yet another job rejection phone call, and she felt like she could no longer hold it together.
"I cried the whole day on Monday," she told HuffPost. "It's painful. It's embarrassing. I worked so hard. I have all this experience and education. I was careful and prepared. I kept savings -- I did everything right. Why am I living on handouts? I always felt like there were needy people out there that needed the help more than I did, but now I am turning into one of those people. Look at this. This is how the middle class is evaporating."
Ortiz lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, where the unemployment rate is currently the highest in the country. She says that while people often think of higher education jobs as being in a different category than most others, like construction or health care, she has experienced the same frustrations applying in her field as anyone else.
"You go through the trouble of applying, people know you, people recommended you, you're looking forward to the interview. Then a few days later, they send you an email saying, 'I'm sorry, but because of budget cuts, we're suspending the search.' It's no longer frustrating, its enraging! Why do they advertise these positions in first place, if they don't really exist?" she said.
Ortiz said when she does actually get an interview, she almost always receives a rejection phone call or email with no satisfying explanation.
"They'll say, 'Don't take it personally. We really liked you, but there were 45 applicants, and the board decided they liked another candidate better,'" she said. "Well that's pretty discouraging to hear! I have a Ph.D., 18 years of experience, impeccable recommendations, and I'm applying for a job that pays a third of what I used to be making. What do I need to do to be liked?"
Ortiz received her last unemployment check on June 28, and she only has $300 left to her name. Although the Senate finally passed a bill to extend unemployment benefits for those whose checks prematurely expired, Ortiz falls into the category of the '99ers,' who have already used up their full amount. Without any extra help on the way, she said she's now looking into some minimum-wage online translating jobs to help her keep up with her car note.
"I have my degree hanging up in front of me," said Ortiz, in tears on the phone. "I was such a proud, successful student. I used to tell my own students, 'Work hard, make grades, finish your degree, and then you will see a change in your earnings.' Well, it would be very hard to make the same speech to them now if I ever make it back to teaching. I mean, look at me."
As part of our Bearing Witness 2.0 Project, the Huffington Post is rounding up stories of former middle class families who are struggling to stay afloat in the recession. If you have a story to tell, please e-mail LBassett@huffingtonpost.com.