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Everybody in their own trenches

Itzelt Santos, program specialist at Paso Robles High School.

Itzel Santos, program specialist at Paso Robles High School, works in the Career Center helping students with financial aid; she lived in Paso Robles throughout her young life, leaving in 2014 to UC San Diego and returning to her hometown in 2017 to “give back to her community,” Santos stated.  She brings a dedication to Latino and Chicano culture and insight into guiding students through the college labyrinth she navigated as a first generation college student from her family. The Career Center provides a outlet of community service for Santos and a “launching pad” for students.

As a first generation American, and the only woman in her family, leaving home and going to college at San Diego State University was a new experience for Santos and her family. Both of her parents grew up in rural Mexico: her mother was from Michoacán and her father lived in a small town in Guerrero called “Huitzuco de los Figueroa.” Neither of her parents had attended school past the sixth grade, and her mother had never attended school for a day in her life. It was customary for women to get married and have children as they entered adulthood in Mexico, but Santos was committed to pursuing a career in international business, believing it would be a reliable choice for her that would help her support her family. 



“Being a first generation American I didn’t know much about school. I just knew that it was something I should probably do. When I was looking at courses or careers I didn’t know what to pick, except that I needed to help my family and that we needed to make money, so business seemed like a good idea. I loved to travel so international business seemed like a good fit,” Santos said. 

In 2014, her first year at  San Diego State, Santos’ plan started to unravel as she immersed herself into the culturally and ethnically diverse environment of San Diego. She joined a community of supportive students with similar Latino backgrounds by taking classes in Chicano studies and participating in Club, (Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan/Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan), which was founded on the principles of Latino education, culture and history. Switching her major to Chicano studies was a difficult but necessary decision for Santos; she needed to pursue what she was passionate about, despite her family’s initial skepticism. 

Santos liked the perspectives that she was hearing in her Chicano studies classes. “It felt like home because I was in a space where I could switch from English to Spanish, which was really beautiful. Having someone to talk to about small cultural things like your mom throwing a chancla at you when you’re in trouble, the food that you eat, the way you celebrate things, was really nice. I discovered that business was not my passion, and I decided to change my major” Santos stated. 

Her family did not resist, but were skeptical about her decision because  they weren’t familiar with the educational system. 

“Imagine being in a new country and not knowing exactly what your daughter is going through, she moved away from home, you don’t know what she’s studying, she’s doing international business so you kind of get what that means, but then having her say ‘I’m switching my major to something you’ve never even heard about.,’ That’s a scary thing,” Santos said. 

Freshman Adriana Aguilar, club member.

As advisor, Santos builds community through fostering a sense of family and comfort among Latino students who come from similar backgrounds. In December of last year, the club hosted a “posada” for families of English language learners at Paso High. A posada is a religious festival popularly celebrated in Mexico; club members put on the celebration to bring together members of the Latino community and to make Paso’s English language learners feel included. 

“It’s really nice in club because it’s comforting to know that people have the same cultural experiences as you. it’s good to have people with your own story here on campus,” freshman Adriana Aguilar said. 

Despite enjoying the busy, new environment of San Diego, being away from home started to weigh on Santos. She was close  with her family and knew she wanted to come back to Paso Robles and support her community. She became more comfortable in her decision when her Chicano studies professor, Dr. Roberto D. Hernández, told her “ ‘cada quien en sus trincheras’ — everybody in their own trenches. You have to give back to your community before you can make the world a better place.” 

Dr. Roberto D. Hernández, professor of Chicano Studies at UC San Diego.

The idea continues to light her dedication to PRHS and its families.

“Being away from home for so long was finally starting to take its toll on me. I’m really close-knit with my immediate family and also my extended family was going through some issues; I felt like I needed to come home. I wanted to go to law school to do immigration law so I could give back to my community,” Santos stated. 

 As a program specialist at Paso Robles High School, Santos works to get students to higher education,  help with financial aid and any Cuesta related programs. Working at the high school lets Santos promote college education to first generation college students like herself who may not understand the value of higher education. 

“I want to make sure that our students feel safe and comfortable coming to school and asking questions in regards to college and career. I love helping our students find out what their next steps are, even in high school, [with questions] like ‘should I take this AP class or this dual enrolled class?’ I let them know that they can do what they want in the future. Being in the Career Center is a launching pad for students to know what they’re doing and helping them figure out what they want to do. We have a lot of students here that are first generation college students across the board, and their parents just don’t know the education system. I think my experiences as a first generation student can better allow me to help a student that might not see college as their future,” Santos said.   

*images fair use under Creative Commons attribution SA 3.0

**Photo by Lucy Nieto. image is fair use under Creative Commons attribution SA 2.0

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