When Hugo Santiago came to the United States as a child, he didn’t understand the language or the American dream.
He wanted a teacher who understood his struggle to learn a new language and culture — but he didn’t have one.
“When I was in middle school, I struggled a lot,” he said. “I feel like there are still kids who need the help like I did.”
When some of his friends dropped out of high school, Santiago questioned what the American dream meant, and if he would ever be able to achieve it.
Now, the 22-year-old Mount Vernon High School graduate is on track to graduate from Skagit Valley College and attend Western Washington University.
He wants to be a teacher.
“Today I know what the American dream is for me — it’s to be a teacher,” Santiago said. “Now that I have the opportunity to make a change, I want to be that teacher that helps those students that are going through what I went through.”
Santiago is one of hundreds of students who have received Champions of Diversity scholarships to attend Skagit Valley College and state universities in the 17 years the scholarship fund has been in existence.
“Our jobs as educators is to remove those barriers to help students succeed,” Skagit Valley College President Tom Keegan said. “Our college is the open door for all who want to seek higher education. And for many, it’s the only open door.”
This year, 65 students were awarded $218,000 worth of scholarships.
“The beauty of our college is the diversity of our students,” Keegan said.
Many of the recipients, including Santiago, are the first in their families to go to college.
“By the time I was a senior in high school I knew I wanted to go to college but I didn’t know how to get there,” he said. “Winning that scholarship was the main door to help me get where I am today.”
Daisy Padilla, also a Mount Vernon High School graduate, said the scholarship she received helped open doors for her as well.
Padilla, who recently earned her master’s degree from Western, is now able to give back through her involvement with the Maestros para el Pueblo program. The program helps guide Latino and bilingual high school students in the Burlington-Edison and Mount Vernon school districts who want to become teachers, with the goal of having them return to Skagit County to teach.
Santiago was one of her students in the program.
“I think it’s very fulfilling,” Padilla said. “I think it’s amazing to see that cycle and I think it’s more fulfilling for the community.”
Padilla and Santiago received $1,500 scholarships through the program.
Others, such as Sedro-Woolley High School senior Alexis Magaña, were awarded more. Magaña received a $6,000 scholarship — nearly a year’s worth of tuition — to attend Western, where he wants to study business and marketing.
“It’s more stability,” he said. “And knowing that you have a push in the right direction.”
The scholarships give students and their families opportunities they might not otherwise have, said Cezar Mesquita, Western’s director of admissions.
“It is absolutely about recognizing excellence in students and in our communities,” Mesquita said.
Since 2000, 724 high school seniors from Skagit, Island and San Juan counties have been awarded about $1.7 million in scholarship funds.
“We’re living in a time when it’s never been so important that we commit to our values of diversity and equity and respect and integrity,” Keegan said. “We’re not going to back off those commitments. In fact, we’re going to increase our efforts.”
Keegan said it is important to remove financial barriers that could prevent people from seeking higher education.
To those who are awarded them, the scholarships are about more than money.
“I learned something very important winning that scholarship,” Santiago said. “I learned that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, there will always be people supporting you and helping you do better.”