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Miami Native Is First Latino DACA Recipient To Win Rhodes Scholarship. He Credits An Early Teacher

Santiago Potes
Santiago Potes graduated from Columbia University last year. He'll begin his master's degree as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford in October.

Santiago Potes was the first Latino DACA recipient among 32 Americans to receive the Rhodes Scholarship last year — one of the oldest and most prestigious international scholarship programs in the world. It allows college students to study at Oxford University in England.

Santiago Tobar Potes was in second grade when he started the gifted program at Sweetwater Elementary School. His now retired Miami-Dade County Public School teacher, Marina Esteva, organized a variety of subjects to be taught in the program — like archeology, Egyptian mythology and the basics, like math, science, and reading.

Potes remembers his time in her program.

“She wanted us listening to classical music every single day. Another assignment was to take notes from our science textbook, going through the entire textbook, we had to do it every single day. A third one was to have some type of physical exercise by ourselves every single day,” said Potes. “I think that instilled in me discipline.”

He stayed in Esteva's program until fifth grade and he credits much of his interest in studying to her.

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Esteva kickstarted Sweetwater Elementary School’s gifted program and she remembers that many of her students were immigrants and came from low-income families.

“I made it a point to have a very rigorous program,” said Esteva. “That shouldn't be a detriment for them to dream that at some point in life they can achieve what every other person in the United States that is economically well-off or have parents that can guide them can achieve.”

Late last year, Potes became the first Latino DACA recipient — also known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — to receive the Rhodes Scholarship. He was among 32 Americans to be awarded one of the oldest and most prestigious international scholarship programs in the world.

The Rhodes Scholarship allows college students to study at the University of Oxford in England.

Potes was born in Colombia and he said he came to Miami with his parents when he was four years old.

“I'm a very, very proud Miamian and Floridian,” Potes said.

He grew up undocumented. And then, when he was 15, was able to get legal status because of DACA. The policy protects undocumented immigrants from deportation if they entered the country as minors.

Because of DACA, Potes was able to attend Columbia University with a full scholarship. He majored in East Asian and Medieval and Renaissance Studies and graduated last year.

Potes almost didn’t apply for the Rhodes scholarship. While he was in college, the Trump administration tried to end DACA and he was worried about what those efforts would mean for his chances to attend the University of Oxford.

“I thought to myself, you know, why put myself through such a strenuous process if I'm not going to be able to leave the country?” he said.

Santiago Potes
Santiago Potes and his elementary school teacher Marina Esteva. Potes was a part of Esteva's gifted program at Sweetwater Elementary from second to fifth grade.

But in June of last year, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Trump’s attempt at terminating DACA, so Potes decided to apply.

Over the years, Potes kept up with Esteva — including during his process of applying for the Rhodes Scholarship.

“Days leading up to the interview and I thought ‘Oh, you know, this scholarship isn't meant for me,’ I really relied on her for support,” said Potes. “This is someone who's known me since I was a little second grader and who really shaped me into the thinker that I am today.”

Potes told Esteva that without her, his winning of the scholarship would not have been possible.

“I said, ‘Oh, come on, no Santiago, if you win it you win it. It's not me,’” Esteva said.

“So then all of a sudden he writes to me a text, and says ‘We won, we did it.' So, we were elated. How can I not be?” said Esteva. “Who would have said to me that after 37 years teaching and 11 years retired, I would get this surprise. Not in a thousand years would I have imagined that someone will remember that Ms. Esteva in elementary made a change in their lives.”

Potes will start at Oxford in October. He’ll be getting his master's degree in international relations — he hopes to become a national security expert for the U.S. government.

He’ll be joined by the first ever DACA recipient to win the scholarship in 2018. Jin Park arrived in New York at the age of seven from South Korea.

“Because of the various immigration problems, he hasn't been able to go. So I think he and I are going to be in the same cohort,” said Potes. “We're going to go to Oxford together. And I think it's going to be a very special time for us to reflect on what it means to be American.”

Sherrilyn Cabrera is WLRN's PM newscast and digital producer.