Things That Matter

Miami Student Becomes First Latino DACA Recipient To Become A Rhodes Scholar And He Says He Owes It All To Elementary School Teacher

When we look back at our time in elementary or middle school, how many of us distinctly remember a special teacher or school official who went out of their way to help us?

Sure, for many of us school wasn’t always the best place. From teasing and bullying to stress over grades and homework, school can be a stressful place. But it’s also a place often filled with caring, compassionate teachers hoping to build our next generation of Americans.

One of those Americans is Santiago Potes, a DACA recipient originally from Colombia who has just been named a 2021 Rhodes Scholar – the first Latino DACA recipient to earn such a distinction.

Santiago Potes has become the first Latino DACA recipient to become a Rhodes Scholar.

Over the weekend, the Rhodes Trust announced its lineup of Rhodes Scholars and among them is the first ever Latino DACA recipient – Santiago Potes, a 2020 graduate of Columbia University.

In their announcement, the Rhodes Trust wrote, “Santiago has been a teaching or research assistant for leading professors in physics, philosophy, social psychology and neuroscience, and won numerous college prizes for leadership as well as academic performance. He is widely published on legal issues relating to DACA status, was one of the DACA recipients featured in a brief filed with the Supreme Court to preserve DACA.”

Today, Potes works as a full-time paralegal for a Wall Street law firm and is the head teaching assistant for a physics class at Columbia. He’s also a foreign policy expert who speaks nine languages and plans to study international relations during his two-year program in England.

“I really just want to protect  the United States because it really is the only country that I know, and I think that my skills and languages and history and political science could be best used in such a career,” added Potes.

Potes traces his success back to an elementary school teacher, herself an immigrant.

In an interview with CNN, Potes says that he owes all of his success and determination to an elementary school teacher that he saw twice a week from second to fifth grade. “She was one of the biggest blessings that I’ve had in my entire life so far,” he said.

“My parents didn’t go to college. My parents had me when they were 16 years old. So, she really became kind of like my first mother figure actually. She went out of her way to teach me a rigorous education,” he added.

He said he would not have reached this level of success if Esteva had not told him from an early age that she believed he could do great things. For her part, Esteva said she just spotted what was already innately in Potes as a child. “I planted a seed in fertile soil. You took care of a plant. You are the one who made it possible.”

Esteva is a Cuban refugee and immigrant to the United States herself. She said it means even more to have teacher and student, both Latino immigrants and refugees, two generations of opportunity and success in the United States.

His story is one that many in the undocumented community can relate to.

Although Potes had to overcome serious struggles to follow his dreams, overcoming homelessness and a difficult home life, he owes his future to his time spent in the classroom.

Like so many in our community, Potes came from parents who both worked to provide for the family. They themselves were young, undocumented parents. His dad washed cars. His mom worked at a major chain supermarket.

It was around Thanksgiving, years ago, when the family was awakened by an early morning banging on the front door to their cramped studio apartment from what he later came to find out were U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.

The 12-year-old managed to grab his school bag and the family escaped through a backyard and were later  picked up by one of his father’s Colombian friends, then taken to a residence where he, his younger brother and parents stayed on a couch for more than a year.

Although Potes is the first Latino DACA recipient to win a Rhodes Scholarship, he’s not the first DACA student.

Although many people associate DACA recipients with being undocumented Latino migrants, that’s not the case. In fact, the first DACA recipient to be named a Rhodes Scholar was Harvard University student Jin Park, of South Korea.

Park, 22, arrived in New York City with his parents from South Korea when he was 7 years old and grew up in Queens, N.Y. Park studied at Harvard working toward a degree in molecular and cellular biology with a minor in ethnicity and migration rights.

“I’ve proposed two master’s degrees for my studies at Oxford: one in migration studies, the other in global health science and epidemiology,” Park says. “I want to do those two degrees and come back and hopefully work in the context of public health department … [to] implement evidence-based policies to improve and work on immigrant health.”

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