Newswise — Randy Santiago never expected to leave his Chicago neighborhood, let alone go to college. Yet on May 13 he’ll graduate from Cornell College and will head to Madrid, Spain, with a Fulbright Award.

Santiago said he read and re-read his Fulbright acceptance for days in disbelief. In his application essay, he focused on the story of his childhood friend, “Leo,” who was killed by a gunshot.

“I hope my story will serve as an example of what a kid from the hood can accomplish when he’s allowed to succeed, what someone like Leo could have achieved had his life not been shortened by gun violence,” Santiago said.

One of four children of Puerto Rican parents, he said he grew up in a society where he felt undesired, unacknowledged, mis-acknowledged, and unsafe.

“I’ll be the first in my family to receive a bachelor’s degree,” Santiago said. “I’m the only person in my immediate family to have traveled abroad for any purpose. As a child in Chicago, I spent many days and nights without sufficient amounts of food, electricity, and sometimes gas during the winter. I never imagined making it out of my neighborhood, let alone onto a college campus. It took becoming homeless two weeks after my senior graduation to convince me that college was my best future option. I’m still homeless and still poor, but I became a Fulbright, and I’ll become the first college graduate in my family. I think I’ve made decent strides.”

Despite his eventual success, persisting at Cornell College was not easy for Santiago.

He was not satisfied with his financial assistance, which included money from an endowed scholarship fund and $1,200 annually in work-study wages. Still, he decided it was the best opportunity he would ever have to escape the circumstances into which he was born. After transferring from Concordia University Chicago, he took on more than $30,000 in loans, more than twice what his mother makes in a good year, he said.

“Most people on campus are middle-class, and they underestimate how much of a burden a loan is. It is not just financial; it is mental and physical as well. For my family, taking out more than $20,000 is obscene. Some family members think I’m making a big mistake,” Santiago said.

Not unlike most college students, Santiago was motivated by financial incentives when it came to applying for a Fulbright, summer research, or off-campus study. He spent one summer conducting a research fellowship at the University of Illinois, in part because it provided summer housing. He wanted to take several off-campus courses but had to choose wisely because he could not afford the extra costs. An off-campus study grant, plus assistance from Cornell’s Rise Up program for first-generation students, provided the extra funding he needed to study Spanish in Guatemala for two blocks, long enough to learn the language.

Coming to a small college in Iowa helped him realize just how Puerto Rican he was, he said, and he began to embrace that identity at Cornell by learning Spanish, serving on the Diversity Committee, and joining Union Latinx, where he rose to become president.

“I grew up Puerto Rican but didn’t feel Puerto Rican, not knowing Spanish,” he said. “There aren't many people who look like me anywhere on campus or off it, so I feel a constant need to prove myself worthy in whatever space I’m occupying. As president of Union Latinx, I've also felt the need to convince people that I am capable of leading the Latin student union.”

During his nine months in Madrid Santiago will use his English and creative writing major, as well as his new skills in Spanish, to teach high school English and facilitate an English language community book club.

“As a Fulbright scholar, I serve as an example of the United States,” Santiago said, “and most importantly, an example of people from violent, low-income, communities of color where countless scores of people are stripped of the opportunity to thrive daily.”

About Cornell College:

Cornell College, a selective liberal arts college in Mount Vernon, Iowa, offers a distinctive One Course At A Time curriculum, immersing students in a single academic subject during each 18-day block. With a student body from 42 states and 17 foreign countries, and renowned faculty, speakers, and entertainers, Cornell offers the world from its hilltop campus.

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