Many college students graduate and enter the working world wide-eyed and wondering what’s next.

University of Connecticut student Jason Ortiz, a public and community engagement major finishing senior year this fall, announced his candidacy for state representative of the 54th District on June 28.

He hopes to fill the seat left by Majority Leader Denise Merrill, who is running for Secretary of the State. The 54th District includes Mansfield and Chaplin, as well as UConn’s Storrs campus.

“It’s a combination of the community and campus working together, which is beautiful,” he said in an interview last week.

Ortiz will run as an independent candidate by petitioning onto the ballot in November. He only needs 88 signatures to qualify for the ballot and he does not intend to compete in the Aug. 10 primary.

A student activist, Ortiz exudes passion for community organizing. He served as UConn’s Undergraduate Student Government Comptroller, president of UConn ACLU, a national board member for Students for a Sensible Drug Policy and a member of SCORE, or the Student Coalition on Reprioritizing Education.

He fought UConn’s controversial tuition hikes last spring, spoke out against growing class sizes and what he felt as “a lack of transparency” among UConn’s administration.

“I’ve always been a troublemaker when it came to authority,” he said. “I liked to ask ‘Why?’ a lot.”

Ortiz and those helping him still wanted a louder voice, however. He considered running for office throughout the semester but was shocked when Brien Buckman, a UConn student entering his 6th semester as an honors political science major, beat him to the punch and announced his candidacy for state representative.

“Buckman’s announcement was a surprise,” Ortiz said. “I’d been considering running and I didn’t think he was the right person for the job. There wasn’t enough discussion.”

Buckman originally asked for the endorsement at the Democratic Convention in late May, but did not receive enough support. He is now petitioning onto the November ballot as an independent candidate.

“I’m not sure what his [Ortiz’s] motivations are,” Buckman said. “I’m not interested in running against another candidate; I’m running for the people of the 54th. I look forward to having debates about the issues and about solutions for the community.”

As the other current UConn student in the race, Ortiz continues to push the issues he feels most important.

“I’d really like to see Connecticut undo the old policies that just aren’t working anymore,” he said.

His platform emphasizes reinvesting in Connecticut’s education and keeping elementary schools in danger of closing afloat. He also hopes to revamp the criminal justice system, especially when it comes to minor drug crimes. Ortiz spent time advocating in 2009 for SB 349, a proposed bill seeking to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

“In high school, I was arrested for possession,” he said. He said his suspension lasted four months, a sentence that changed his outlook on the criminal justice system.

“I looked at the other punishments for fighting, etc., and they were much less severe,” he said. “It just seemed counterproductive to pull a 10th grader out of school like that for so long.”

He said students out of school for too long can only get themselves into more trouble.

For now, Ortiz spends his days working with children at the Mystic Seaport as an education coordinator. After 5 p.m., work revolves around the campaign. He uses the evenings to canvass or work online.

Both Ortiz and Buckman focus on harnessing the student vote as well as the town vote.

“The student vote poses a bit of a problem because most of them aren’t around during the summer,” Buckman said.

“The student vote is a huge factor,” Ortiz said. “During last year’s presidential vote, the town of Mansfield was overwhelmed with students. This kind of outpouring made me think I could win it.”

Ortiz and Buckman also face Democratic Mansfield Deputy Mayor Gregory Haddad and Christopher Paulhus, a Republican town council member of Mansfield.

Minor party candidates have until September 1 to enter the race.