Nacido en Colombia, Potes habla con fluidez nueve idiomas y aspira a trabajar en seguridad nacional de los Estados Unidos. Photo: CNN
Born in Colombia, Potes is fluent in nine languages and aspires to work in U.S. national security. Photo: CNN

Meet Santiago Potes, the first Latino DACA recipient to win a Rhodes Scholarship

Potes came to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant at age four, and his intelligence and the belief of a teacher have been key to winning one of the world's…


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We tend to underestimate the importance of a good or bad teacher in our childhood experience. However, as we look back, there are vocations that take root in school and great failures. 

For Colombian Santiago Potes, who just became the first Latino recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to receive a Rhodes scholarship, his elementary school teacher was "one of the greatest blessings I've had in my entire life," he told CNN.

Potes had come to the United States as an undocumented immigrant when he was four, but didn't meet teacher Marina Esteva until he got to second grade. He was a child with above-average intelligence, and Esteva taught him Sweetwater Elementary School in Miami. 

Esteva met with Potes twice a week from second to fifth grade and became, as the Latino admitted, "my first maternal figure," doing everything possible to give him a rigorous education on how to be a true "renaissance man." He took it very seriously, and in addition to his academic success, Santiago is also a violinist and speaks nine languages fluently. 

"My parents didn't go to college. They had me when they were 16," said Potes. He is now a graduate of Columbia University in New York, will become a Rhodes Scholar in 2021. 

It was announced last Saturday by the Rhodes Trust, and they wrote that: "Santiago has been a teaching or research assistant for outstanding professors in Physics, Philosophy, Social Psychology and Neuroscience, and he has won numerous awards for leadership and academic performance."

The organization also pointed out his vocation to contribute something to people in his same situation. Santiago has also published works on legal issues related to the DACA program, of which he is a beneficiary, and "his case was presented in a report before the Supreme Court to preserve the DACA."

Plant today and harvest tomorrow

Education is the cornerstone of a society. One need only look at a country's education system to draw conclusions about the inequalities of class, gender and race that govern its social structure. 

In the times of racial segregation in schools, racial minorities received an education based on the continuation of white privilege. They were trained, as is often said, to reproduce the same roles as their parents, they were forbidden to speak Spanish, and their school hours were also governed in many cases by farm work. 

Today, we can appreciate that same winding stratification by neighborhood and it is another form of segregation. However, new programs on ethnicity are being imposed and the need to include diverse references is one of the biggest challenges for all students to be inspired and motivated, as well as to end the privileges present in education. The glass ceiling is still very present, even if it is only slightly cracked. 

"I would like to see a broader national conversation about the importance of teachers in elementary school."

"He is a complete human being," said Esteva about her successful student. "He has the highest moral caliber and sense of justice, and is willing to sacrifice himself for excellence, not for show." 

Esteva was also a Cuban refugee and migrant in the United States and is well aware of the impact on students of having diverse, Latino and refugee faculty.

"I would like to see a broader national conversation about the importance of teachers in elementary school," she said.

If she hadn't believed in Potes' potential, if she hadn't struggled to raise her student from an early age, he might not have realized the bright future that awaits him. 

"I planted a seed on fertile soil," Esteva humbly concluded, but it was the young man that nurtured the plant and made it thrive. 

Thanks to the Rhodes scholarship, Santiago Potes will study International Politics and Contemporary East Asia at Oxford University with the goal of working in national security in the United States.


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