I come from a humble Puerto Rican family where achieving advanced education was not possible for many of my family members. My mother, especially, struggled to make ends meet by working laborious jobs, most of which were in a factory.
I saw early that her and my other family members’ small wages did not compensate for their tireless efforts; and like so many other young Latinos I learned the value of responsibility and hard work at an early age by serving as a translator, negotiator and personal accountant for both my parents.
It was in my mother and other family members’ experiences that I found the motivation to achieve my highest potential and always be proud of my Latina roots. In my sophomore year of college, I founded HOLA (Hispanic Organization for Latino Awareness), which was the first Latino Organization of its kind at Hiram College.
This organization increased the cultural awareness of many on campus and was comprised of a diverse group of students. I spent my entire freshman year researching other organizations and contacting as many people as possible to make sure my organization would run smoothly and effectively. Creating this organization increased my leadership and communication skills and reflected my desire to interact and educate people from diverse backgrounds.
In the process, I learned a lot from the people in the organization and about myself. It also connected me to so many incredible people and opened so many doors including the opportunity to serve on the NCLR Líderes Summit Staff Team and eventually become a Secondary Spanish teacher in the city of Detroit.
After graduating from college, I increased my level of civic engagement and now work on the campaign to free Oscar Lopez Rivera, a Puerto Rican political prisoner who has been unjustly imprisoned for over 31 years. I also participate in many other community endeavors including volunteer work, tutoring and fundraising. I encourage any of you reading this to be as involved as possible and to never forget or be ashamed of your roots. You’ll never know where you are going if you don’t remember where you came and you’ll never know how far you can go until you’re ready to try.
I, myself, have always been fascinated by the mind and how it operates, especially the mind of teenagers and the societal problems that they face. I took courses in college in both psychology and sociology due to my interest in both fields. Psychology always intrigued me due to the opportunity to provide counseling and psychological support to children, adolescents and their families. Sociology intrigued me due to the opportunity to help tackle and research the societal problems faced by people from different backgrounds and age groups, such as the lack of Hispanic students graduating from high school and pursing higher education.
I plan on obtaining a Ph.D. in one of these fields. Afterward I hope to open or help run a non-profit in a neighborhood most in need of psychological assistance, like my hometown, Cleveland, Ohio.
So my advice to you is to dream as large as possible, take risks, network as much as you can and value the connections you make. I’m still on my journey, myself, learning everyday and taking notes with every step I take; so value humility and don’t be afraid to make your Latin@ mark on the world!!
Melissa Santana was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio and recently moved to Detroit, Michigan to teach Secondary Spanish. She currently serves as a member of the National Boricua Human Rights Network, citizen philanthropist for Detroit 4 Detroit and is a private tutor/enrichment teacher for the Detroit Public School system and Dominican Literacy Center. She is a proud graduate of Hiram College, where she majored in psychology and sociology. She was a member of the 2010 and 2012 Líderes Summit Staff Team in San Antonio, Texas and Las Vegas, Nevada.