Santiago Potes is one of the hundreds of thousands of DACA-recipients currently living in the U.S. His parents fled Colombia when he was four years old, traveling with Potes to Miami.
Now, Potes, 23, is a graduate of Columbia University and also the first Latino DACA recipient to be awarded a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.
"I just couldn't believe it," he tells NPR's Morning Edition. "I just thought that they were going to call me, and say 'Oh, we made a mistake. Sorry about that, we actually didn't choose you.' "
Santiago says his love for learning really took off when he was selected for Marina Esteva's gifted classroom at Sweetwater Elementary when he was in the second grade.
"It was just such a rigorous elementary school education," he says. "It was kind of like an intellectual boot camp for elementary school students."
Potes says Ms. Esteva became his mentor.
Esteva remembers Potes as an attentive learner who took a special interest in her lessons about what it means to be a Renaissance man.
"That word hit him profoundly ... and he said to me at that time, 'That's what I want to be. I want to be a Renaissance man.' And now he's a Rhodes Scholar," she tells NPR. "That little boy flourished into what he is now."
Potes says he wasn't even sure he should pursue the scholarship because the status of DACA — the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects against deportation for some brought to the U.S. as children — was in flux. When the Supreme Court ruled in June for DREAMers like him, he decided to pursue the Rhodes scholarship process. He applied in August and was notified late last month he'd been selected. "If they hadn't ruled in favor of DACA then I just wouldn't have applied."
As one of the 2021 Rhodes Scholars, Potes will head to the University of Oxford in the UK this fall. He plans to study for a Master's degree in international relations and from there, he wants to come back to the U.S.
"I wanna be a national security expert working at the Department of State or working as a counselor to a senator," Potes says. "I want to use my academic research to help the United States, ultimately."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Santiago Potes is one of the hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients currently living in the United States. DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It's a program that offers protections for young people who arrived in the U.S. without legal documentation.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Santiago's parents moved to Miami from Colombia when he was 4. Now he's a graduate of Columbia University in New York. And he is also the first ever Latino DACA recipient to be awarded a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.
SANTIAGO POTES: I just couldn't believe it. I was just like - I just thought that they were going to call me and say, oh, actually, you know, we made a mistake. Sorry about that. You - we actually didn't choose you.
GREENE: That is Santiago. And, yes, they did choose him. Santiago says his love for learning really took off when he was elected for a gifted and talented class in his elementary school.
POTES: It was just such a rigorous - very, very rigorous - education, like, elementary school education. It was kind of like an intellectual boot camp for elementary school students.
KING: Marina Esteva taught that class. And she became Santiago's mentor. She told us that he was a star student.
MARINA ESTEVA: He was a very compassionate, caring, cooperative - he was always helping his classmates. And, I mean, he has qualities that, right now, as an adult, I can see him, you know? That little boy's flourished into what he is now. So I am very happy to have been part of his life.
KING: Her classroom offered Santiago more than an education.
POTES: She really kind of became my first maternal figure. Both my parents were really young when they had me. They were 16 years old. And I just felt, like, certain, like, respect and also, I guess, a sense of safety coming from this woman who just went out of her way to teach me a rigorous education. And I'm really - yeah. I'm just - I'm so happy that she thinks I'm heading in the right direction.
GREENE: That direction will take him to the University of Oxford in the U.K. for a master's degree in international relations. Santiago then plans to come home.
POTES: I want to be a national security expert working at the Department of State or working as a counselor to a senator. Yeah. I want to use my academic research to help the United States, ultimately.
KING: Santiago Potes, the first Latino DACA student to win a Rhodes Scholarship.
(SOUNDBITE OF DGHTR'S "BLINK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.