“No matter what your circumstances are in life, if you put yourself to it and ask for help, you’ll be able to get there.”
Bear Nash: Will you start by telling us a little about yourself and what it was like growing up and attending school in Santa Fe?
Janeth Santos: My parents both emigrated from different places in Mexico and met here in Santa Fe. I have a very strong connection to this community and feel very grateful for being raised here. I was raised with the value of education being very important in my family. Even more important than religion, education was a top priority from my parents’ point of view that was passed on and inculcated into our own values. We saw it as a way to be successful. And it was a perspective of not just being financially stable, but also wanting to find a career that was enjoyable. I always remember the way they would talk about how difficult their jobs were and how they didn’t want us to have to work those types of jobs. While they are honorable jobs that allow them to make ends meet, they wanted me to find a profession that I enjoyed waking up to.
I feel like my public education was… good. In high school I took advantage of as much as I could and got plugged into the right programs, thankfully. So I did really well in high school and graduated at the top of my class, but then going to college I felt like I wasn’t prepared for a lot of things. I felt behind in college compared to other students. I had to re-learn my systems for studying and writing essays, basic things that I thought I had down.
Bear Nash: Thank you. So tell us about that time in your life, when you’re at Capital High and are learning about the New Mexico Simon Scholars Program. What was that time period like and what made you want to apply for the program?
Janeth: I remember it was Mike Ammerman who did a presentation in my AVID classroom. And I thought, this was something I absolutely wanted to be a part of! I knew I wanted to go to college and that was why I had gotten involved in AVID, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t have necessarily the guidance… parents, or really anyone in my family for that matter, at all. So it seemed this was the way. This was how I was going to get there, because I didn’t have any clue.
I remember being notified of being a semifinalist, and having my interview time. I was definitely very intimidated. I had never been interviewed in my life and it was a scary process being in that room with, I want to say it was 10-12 older people. Having to talk about myself and why I wanted to be a part of the program. I remember walking out of there feeling like, “you know, I did the best that I could and told them I wanted to be a part of this and would take advantage of the opportunity.”
When I was notified that I did receive the scholarship I was very excited and happy. I remember going home and sharing it with my family, and they were very excited too. There were definitely tears shed at my house that day…happy tears because we saw this more as a reality…[tearing up]…I’m just kinda remembering that day…they were really, really happy. We were all really excited about it, and we saw it more as a reality, like, she is going to college. They always pushed us, but it was kinda true at the time. It was real. She’s going.
Bear: Looking back at your experience in the program, what were some of the most important aspects for you?
Janeth: A huge thing is the community this program builds. There wasn’t much of a [Simon Scholars] presence at Capital when it was my turn to apply, and I wasn’t aware of that aspect. So when I applied I was really thinking of myself and how this would help me get to where I want to go. It was a huge, pleasant, and impactful surprise going into this and having a community of other scholars that I really felt connected to. And I think that is something the program does that is just great. A lot of students maybe enter the program in a similar way, thinking of their own goals and then they get in and realize it has so much more to offer. It’s a great community where students not only feel supported in the college process, but in life in general.
Now it’s been 8 years since I graduated from high school and 10 years since I was accepted to the program. I really value that community aspect, and I reflect on it because some of my really close friends now were other scholars in the program. It’s great to have those friendships and community that I can always rely on, and go back with to reflect and reminisce on the experience we went through.
Bear: You have now completed your Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science at University of New Mexico and pursued a different path after graduation. Tell us about your experience at UNM and how it led you to where you are now?
Janeth: I remember being part of a leadership group in high school that was focused on closing the achievement gap; helping address the disparity between students from low socio-economic backgrounds and student[s] with more means. That was something I was truly passionate about. So I got involved in Political Science because I thought I would do something at the government level to help with education. That was my plan, and I honestly did not know [laughs] very much about Political Science except for maybe what I could google. I remember going into a government class and really liking it. So I decided to stick with it.
In my junior year I was able to do an internship with, actually our current governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, when she was running to be re-elected for congress. I thought it was a really great, valuable experience. I learned a lot, and I also learned that I didn’t want to be in government. I couldn’t see myself being happy doing that job. For me, seeing her, and I know she wanted to do great things and was passionate about her community, but I just felt like she wasn’t able to get much done because they have to be re-elected every two years and are always working on that process.
That was a really eye-opening experience for me because I was at the end of my undergrad experience and was like, “well maybe this is not what I want to do.” I felt very lost at that moment. But I decided to stick it out and finish my degree because I was already so close to completing it. Once I graduated there was a period where I was just trying to figure out what my next step was going to be and how I was going to find a job that I felt good about. I did some things here and there but my big eye-opening moment was when I started working with a program called College Plaza, which was started by The Simon Charitable Foundation.
This was a program started at Santa Fe High School that helped students through the college process. I started working there part-time while still working at a hotel where I had been for several years. I found it so rewarding to work in a place like that, helping other students like myself who didn’t know how to navigate the college process. I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in education and that I would go back to school and get a teaching certificate so I could be a teacher in high school.
I started the program and classes, and it was then that Mike [Ammerman] reached out to me about an opening in the [New Mexico Simon] Scholars Program and asked me if I would be interested in working here. I never thought that opportunity would come to me, but I had always envisioned a position like this being my dream job. Obviously having gone through the program, it was near and dear to my heart and [that] made it even more appealing. So I was in limbo there for a bit and it ended up working out for me. It’s really crazy because I remember thinking, “you know, I want a job like the one Mike has” when I was in high school.
Not long ago I was looking through my yearbook. I was a Sterling Silver at Capital High and there was a section there where I wrote down what I wanted to do when I was in college and what I wanted to do for work. I wrote that, “I would go to UNM, get my bachelors in Political Science and that I wanted to work for a non-profit organization in education.” I literally just opened that page like two months ago and it was crazy to see that I had accomplished those goals that I set out for myself in my senior year of high school. Never in a million years would I have pictured that it was actually going to be true.
Bear: As we’ve discussed, you completing the program and your degree. Went on to work at College Plaza. Are now are on staff as the High School Program Coordinator. You also served as an Alumni Association Board member. What is it that drives you and inspires you to maintain your level of engagement with the program and to seeing this work progress?
Janeth: Talking to high school students about my experience now as High School Program Coordinator, I think there is something really powerful that comes with students like yourself showing you that it is possible. Whenever I bring back college students, or Alumni to talk with our high school students I think those are the people they really connect with and that really inspire them. I remember those were the people that really inspired me and made me believe I was able to do it. Because I was first-generation and didn’t have the money, there are all these odds stacked against students like myself that connecting with students like me gave me the inspiration that its possible, “you’re able to do it.”
I think a part of me has always wanted to be that support person for other students who may doubt themselves. No matter what your circumstances are in life, if you put yourself to it, and ask for help, you’ll be able to get there. Sharing those experiences, being able to now provide them for other students really motivates me.
Bear: You now have a role overseeing the High School Program. How has your direct experience of the program influenced your work?
Janeth: I remember when I applied for the position here I wrote in my letter of intent that I would really like to increase our parent engagement efforts in the program. Because from my own experience of being here, while I’ve always been a very dedicated student and have been on top of things, I didn’t necessarily keep my parents in the loop. They always knew that I would take care of it, so they didn’t worry. But also never really learned all the things I had to do to prepare [for college] or the things I had to go through in college. They never experienced college themselves and I wasn’t sharing it with them. And that happens across the board with our students. They learn things here but don’t necessarily share them at home. Sometimes it’s hard to start that conversation at home because you’re concerned about what they’re going to think, or “are they going to be supportive of my desires?” I think all our parents are incredibly supportive and they want their children to be successful. They tend to rely on us to be the experts and they stay out of the process. But when you look at it, students that come from families where someone has gone to college, those parents are very much involved in the process. I feel like once a parent is aware of the college process they are able to be more supportive.
I hope to create a community here that goes beyond the student so the whole family feels connected. I love that they’re not scared to ask questions. Most of us have never been away from our homes, and some students play a really big role in their families. So talking about all those things helps to prepare them for what is going to happen and their role in the process.
Students have said how great it is to be able to have conversations at home, using this college lingo and having their parents understand it, makes some of those conversations easier. Even our parents who have had another student in the program, have commented on how they were totally unaware of the process, and it’s been really helpful to know more about what their kid is going through.
Bear: As part of your role in the program you serve as a mentor to these high school students. Tell us what role mentors have played in your life? Who have been some of your most important mentors?
Janeth: There are so many people who have impacted my life, but there are three very strong mentors that really pushed me. A lot of the way that I think is based on my experiences with them.
One is my English and AVID high school teacher Channell Segura, who now works with AVID at the state level. She created a community at Capital High School and was always a strong supporter of me. I remember her care and passion for her students and I try to take that into my work because I remember it being very comfortable and nurturing. She was very open minded and supportive.
A second mentor that really shaped the field that I ultimately chose to pursue is Kristen Krell. She was, at that time, the Gear Up coordinator and I worked with her in a leadership group. That’s where we worked on things like closing the achievement gap and would give school boards recommendations. She helped me become a strong advocate for my community, develop my public speaking skills, facilitation skills, and built on that strong passion to advocate for others in our community.
And then, obviously, a big one has been Mike. Not only in the high school program while I was a Simon Scholar. He was kind of… key to helping me find where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do in my life, and inspired me to want a job like his.
I remember when I came into this position he really helped me fit into the role, feel confident, brought out my potential. He was really great at seeing the big picture and helping me see it as well. I had the big picture, but he was really good at helping me see it, like, “ok why are you doing this, why are you having this parent meeting, what is your goal with this.” And I would say, well, “I’m hoping they do this.” And he’d say, “well that’s what you need to have in mind and the rest of the things will fall in place.”
Bear: Given the impact mentors had on your life, what do you hope to bring to the students that you mentor through the program?
Janeth: I hope that they see that I care about them. I think that is something I felt from my mentors that really supported me; an open door to come back at any time and ask any questions I had. I hope I inspire them, because without the people that inspired me it wouldn’t have seemed realistic that I could achieve all the things that I have. And I hope I can support them in whatever journey they decide to pursue.
Bear: Thank you very much Janeth.