Appreciating her parents' sacrifices

First-generation ASU grad Sara Santos reflects on how her family helped her succeed


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Editor's note: This story is part of a series of student profiles that are part of our December 2015 commencement coverage.

It’s the eve of fall commencement and Sara Santos is quietly shedding tears.

It’s not an expression of joy or sorrow; she’s crying for the people who have made big sacrifices on her behalf so she could attend college.

“Graduation makes me emotional because my parents are from Guatemala and they came to the United States in their early 20s,” said Santos, a first-generation college student who will receive her degree from ASU’s College of Nursing and Health Innovation. Santos will also receive the Jose Ronstadt Outstanding Undergraduate award at ASU’s Hispanic Convocation, for her service to others in the Latino community.

“Neither one had a formal education, and both were forced to quit school when they were young to help out their families. Growing up, my dad had to work in the fields with his brothers and father, and I remember as a kid he only had two shirts and two pairs of pants for the whole week. I may not have had as much as other kids in the neighborhood, but I knew I was privileged because I was never hungry, always had a roof over my head and was somehow able to get a formal education. I never had to worry about the things my parents worried about. They always led me to believe I was going to have it better than them and made many sacrifices to ensure I did.”

These days Santos is not only expressing gratitude towards her parents — Marta and Marcony — but is reflecting back on the teachers, counselors and mentors who provided encouragement when she was a student in the Phoenix Union High School District, where she graduated third in her class. They’re the reason she wanted to attend college, and the combination of the Doran Community Scholars program and the Provost’s Scholarship enabled Santos to attend ASU the past four years.

Some might say Santos has already paid it forward. She was recently named the National Undergraduate Philanthropist of the Year by Kappa Delta Chi Sorority, which she serves as president, for her 1,000 hours of community service — from raising money for Relay for Life to helping build a playground in downtown Phoenix — while attending ASU. Santos also served as vice president of the National Association of Latino Fraternal Organizations.

“I teach Sunday School class with a gentleman who was my teacher when I was growing up. He pointed at me and said to the class, ‘Years ago she was seated right where you are, and now she’s teaching you,’ ” Santos said. “I feel like a role model to these kids, and I like the responsibility of being a role model for them. That was something I was always looking for, and now I can be that person for someone else.”

Santos also wants to be a go-to person for Hispanic patients and had the opportunity while completing her coursework at Banner Medical University Center in downtown Phoenix.

“One of the patients I was working with on my community health rotation had just been diagnosed with diabetes, and he didn’t really understand the need for insulin or why he needed to check his blood level,” Santos said. “I was able to explain everything in Spanish and developed a rapport with him. When I did follow-up visits and he fully understood the treatment and the actual benefits, we saw a vast improvement in him.”

Santos said she has to take her board-certified tests in order to become an official registered nurse and eventually plans on pursuing her Doctor of Nursing Practice. For now she wants to take in the twin celebrations with her parents and siblings in tow, and collect the Ronstadt award, which she says was a complete surprise.

“They were proud before, but this takes it to another level of proud,” Santos said.

Her tears have evaporated by the end of the interview, replaced with a smile.

Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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