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I'm the first Latino DACA recipient to win a Rhodes Scholarship. Here's how I want to give back to the elementary school teacher and the city that helped me excel.

Business Insider India logo Business Insider India 04-10-2022 Elisa Xu
I'm the first Latino DACA recipient to win a Rhodes Scholarship. Here's how I want to give back to the elementary school teacher and the city that helped me excel. © Santiago Potes I'm the first Latino DACA recipient to win a Rhodes Scholarship. Here's how I want to give back to the elementary school teacher and the city that helped me excel.
  • Santiago Potes is the first Latino recipient of the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship and a DACA recipient.
  • He credits his elementary school teacher, Marina Esteva, as a main reason why he was able to excel in his educational journey.

Santiago Potes is a beneficiary of DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a policy introduced by the Obama administration in 2012 that grants relief from deportation to over 600,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.

In 2020, Potes became the first Latino DACA recipient to win a Rhodes Scholarship, a prestigious fellowship award that gives students from around the world the opportunity to study at Oxford University. Every year, 32 students are chosen from the United States for the program.

This is an as-told-to essay based on a conversation with Potes. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I was born in Cali, one of Colombia's major cities, and I lived there until I was about 3 and a half. Around that time, terrorists took my grandparents' lives, and my mom thought that it was not feasible for us to continue living in Colombia. So, we moved to Miami.

Everything changed when ICE came to my house and tried to deport us. It was around Thanksgiving 2006, I was in the third grade at the time. I just remember them knocking very, very loudly on the door, screaming out, "This is ICE. Open the door, now!" We didn't know about any rights that we had. It was a very scary experience.

Thankfully, my family and I escaped that. A week before ICE showed up, we had set up a door on the wire fence in our backyard so we could enter and exit from the back. So, the day ICE came, I took my book bag and all my school supplies, I held my little brother, and my family and I walked out into the backyard, crossing a big pond behind the house. We went to a location where my dad's friend picked us up. It was 100% by chance that the door had just been built. Otherwise, we probably would've had to climb the wire fence.

School became a safe haven

After that, we were basically homeless. My parents worked so hard to keep on paying the mortgage on the house, and they ended up paying it in full. But still, we could not return to the house out of fear that ICE would show up again, and then we wouldn't be as lucky to escape deportation.

I loved being in school up until 2006 because it felt like I was completely safe, like nothing could happen to me. But from about 2006 to 2012, there was a general feeling of fear in my life. I felt like I had to be extremely careful about anything I said about my background.

At the same time, I was blessed to have grown up in Miami. I never had to deal with discrimination on the basis of my ethnicity when I was living there. There wasn't even much of a cultural difference because Miami culture is very similar to Latin American culture.

All of my teachers from kindergarten until 12th grade were Cuban immigrants, or the first generation to have been born in Miami from Cuba. My elementary school teacher from my second year to fifth grade, who I still talk to to this day, called herself an "exilee." We were a class full of immigrants. I know that if I did tell any of them about my status that it would be okay, even though I didn't. It was out of very prudent fear, and also out of respect to my parents, that I didn't tell anybody at all.

My elementary school teacher was a support system

I first met my teacher, Marina Esteva, when I was in second grade. I was part of this gifted and talented program in my public elementary school. One of the first things that I noticed about her was that she was a lot more demanding than the teachers that I've had until then. She demanded excellence from us because she knew we could rise to her standards.

It seemed to me that she loved her job. She loved her life. As a child, one feels that from their teacher. On two occasions, I remember I didn't bring my lunch money to school. My parents didn't apply for free or reduced lunch because they didn't want to take any handouts unless they genuinely felt like they needed to, and out of fear that they didn't want any trace of any activity of ours. But on those two occasions, my teacher just said, "Here's the money, you don't have to pay me back." I felt so grateful on those days when there just wasn't enough.

I still keep in touch with her today because she's such a fundamental person in my life. We talk about academic things, like my classes at Oxford. But then I also ask her about her own life. I just came back from Miami, and I told her, "Please take advantage of me while I'm in Miami. If you have any things you have to move around in your house, if I can help with any gardening… Please just use me." I want to be there for her as much as she was there for me during very crucial years.

I still talk to two or three of my classmates from this elementary school class. All of us have stories about how impactful this teacher has been. And while Miss Esteva — as I still call her today — is exceptional, she isn't unique. Which is why I feel so grateful for the outsized work that elementary school teachers do. The academic work they do, the social work they do, and the emotional labor our elementary school teachers go through, as though they were caregivers to their students.

My entire community helped me win the Rhodes Scholarship

About five seconds before the winners of the Rhodes Scholarship were announced, there's a video of me saying, "No, no, I'm not going to get it. I'm just not going to get it." And then, lo and behold, 12 seconds later they read my name. I blanked out. I felt that I wasn't the type of person that was supposed to win a Rhodes Scholarship. I called my parents. I called my elementary school teacher and I told her, "No, we did this. We won this." She put me, she put all of us, on a very academic track from the age of 7, and I won it when I was 23. I said we, so I meant her and me, but I also meant my Miami County public school system, we also won it together. My parents who didn't go to college, my little brother, he and I also won this. It was gratitude for so many people.

I wanted to win it not just for me, but as a validation of all the struggles that immigrants go through in the United States, and that Miss Esteva went through specifically.

I really felt that I wanted my win to be a validation of all the struggles that my own family went through, that my teacher went through, that so many of the Cuban exilees that first came to Miami went through. I wanted all their work, which laid a foundation for me to excel, to be validated.

Studying abroad made me want to give back to the United States

One of the biggest things that I've learned about myself from being able to go abroad is how much I love the United States.

In America, people notice, "This person, they look like they really want to work to get ahead." I've noticed it in Miami, I've noticed in New York, on the West Coast, I've noticed it in the deep South, I've noticed it in the middle of America.

It's just made me appreciate the United States so much. It has more than doubled my desire to find some type of career that gives back to the United States for everything that it has given me. I went to the United States with nothing, and it has given me everything. I've always known that America is the only home that I have, but now I know for a fact that America is the only home that I have, and it is the only home that I would want to have.

A lot of Rhodes Scholars stay in Europe and have a backpacking summer. But I decided to go back to Miami instead to help launch a nonprofit called the GreenLight Fund. The original GreenLight Fund was founded by a fellow Rhodes Scholar, John Simon, in the early 2000s. It identifies programs that have worked in other cities and applies them to the new cities that they're trying to expand into. I worked with them to fundraise over $4 million for Miami to be GreenLight's 14th city.

I'm from Miami. I lived there the vast majority of my life, and I thought I knew Miami pretty well. But working with GreenLight has been so interesting for me to meet these leaders behind the city that I had never heard about. We met with Haitian leaders, we met with the first generation of Cubans to come to Miami, we met with Jewish leaders. We met with them because we're trying to build a grassroots coalition to support the issues that Miami needs to improve on.

I'm realizing now that it's the first major opportunity I've had to give back to the community that has given me everything. I truly don't believe that I'm exceptional. There's lots of young people, young students, young immigrants, young Americans of all kinds, that are just as capable as me. I think what happened with me is that I was very lucky to have been given a certain intersection of opportunities. I think that if other people, young people, are also given these opportunities, they also can flourish and give back to the United States as well.

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