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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

Voices of Diversity

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People Need People: Cortez Hollis

By Greg Poulton


Cortez Hollis just arrived back from a personal trip to Washington DC. Now in his last semester as an undergrad at MSU Mankato, he went for a weekend to “get away and find some peace” within himself. He brought no one with him, and met no one there. Instead, he toured the sights alone, taking in the powerful structures of the capital as well as standing in the place where Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech. Cortez has a dream too. “I’m a Christian so I wanted to get away and get some peace to talk with the lord,” Cortez said. “I wanted to figure out what’s my next move. I feel like so much is going on and I’m always in a rush to help someone.”


Cortez was born in Chicago, and grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When he was young his mother would disappear sometimes for “weeks at a time,” leaving him and his little brother at home to fend for themselves. He recalls stealing food from grocery stores simply to feed his brother, and even being threatened with a gun in the street while he was playing a game of football with his cousins. “And those are some of the mild experiences,” Cortez says in a somber tone, “I could probably talk about this for 24 hours.”


Cortez tells of a string of boyfriends that his mother had when she was struggling with drug addiction. He didn’t always get along with these new men in his life. “Understand, I was put out of my home for fighting a grown man who was putting his hands on my mother. At the end of the day, I had to be the one to sit in a court room and go to a group home. It psychologically messes with a kid. You don’t understand what’s really going on at that age, but these things happen and no kid should have to go through that.” After a finishing his sentence in a group home, Cortez managed to complete high school in Milwaukee.


After high school, Cortez decided to learn how to make money in order to provide for his family. Luckily, his god-mother is a successful business woman outside of Dallas, Texas. She took him under her wing for nearly three years while he learned about banking and real-estate. He was pulling in “$1500-$1600 checks” and thought that, “providing for my family was the only thing.” Then, he got a visit from two of his closest friends, Adrian Battles and Cornelius Cotton. They were on spring break from MSU, where they were both enjoying great success as students and athletes. They helped to convince Cortez that he could “think bigger” than the business he was currently in, so he joined them at MSU the next fall.


Cortez has grown to love MSU. Some of his fondest memories include many of the professors and staff who have had a positive impact on him in class and within his personal life. “MSU has been perfect for me.” He said. “I was involved a car accident that kind of set me back, but still there were people set in place to genuinely help me.” Cortez ended up with a broken back due to a truck that struck him in a parking lot his freshman year. The recovery period was a learning experience. He recalls his professors and other staff on campus saying, “Regardless of what you’re going through, ‘we’re going to help you. You’re going to graduate.” Cortez said, “I talked to a couple of those same professors last week, and they asked me, ‘so when are you going to graduate?’ I said May, and they were more excited than me. That’s the kind of environment that MSU is. It totally made me the man I am now. It made me want to pass what I’ve learned to the next generation.”


Cortez’s path has not been an easy one, and he aims to make that work in the favor of many future students whose lives have been similar to his own. After several years of work helping other students here at MSU through his job with Institutional Diversity, as well as Black Intelligent Gentlemen (BIG), a club on campus of which he was a co-founder, Cortez will graduate with a degree in Ethnic Studies and Gender & Women’s Studies. BIG has been tremendously successful, and has a membership of well over 100 students. With his degree in hand, and a series of successes under his belt, Cortez intends to pursue his dream of starting a series of group homes around the nation, beginning with a facility in Texas.


“I was in a group home. I feel like I have the ins and outs on what could have been done differently to help kids.” “I want to have a facility where we’re teaching kids to adapt in their neighborhoods, their surroundings, to higher education and also the corporate world.” Cortez is adamant about the fact that because he came from those circumstances, kids who have gone through the same things he has gone through will be able to look him in the eye and believe in themselves, believe that they can become just as successful as he is.


Cortez offers this advice to students from the inner-city who are having a hard time transitioning to college. “You have to be able to be open, and forget everything that you learned. Coming from the inner city, you don’t learn that love is love. You don’t even talk about love. You learn that you’re not supposed to cry. You learn that you’re supposed to play this tough role to everyone, that it’s soft to be open and sweet and kind-hearted, when it’s really not.”


Cortez spoke passionately about how, “there’s always something thriving and going on [at MSU] where you can learn about different cultures, different people, different languages. It’s unreal the amount of knowledge you can gain. One of my professors told me, and it will stick with me forever, he said, ‘I can be the smartest man in the world, I can teach you things that you’ve never learned before, but in college, your professors are not your greatest teachers, the student sitting next to you is.’” “I feel like MSU is a home,” Hollis said. “If I’m going to be going to school with all these people, under one roof, why not get to know all of my brothers and sisters? Why not learn everything that we can to help someone? People need people. Regardless of what race you are, what gender, what background you come from, People need people. There are several times when I would be on campus, and a smile would really brighten up my day.”


Cortez has remained optimistic and determined through good times and bad, and in fact, his biggest piece of advice for incoming freshmen is just that: determination. Following Cortez’s example, with his stories of hard times in the past, and great people to help him through, it seems hard to believe that anyone could not be successful at MSU. Cortez speaks from the heart when he addresses those who are going through the same struggles he has been through. He reminds us all that, “Life hasn’t always been great, but right now, this is what it is.”