As graduation season is underway, one local graduate will be honored with two exceptional distinctions. Alex Santiago will be the first Holyoke Community College student to graduate with an Associate Degree in Latinx Studies. The major was first introduced at the college in 2019.
Santiago was also recognized by the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education as one of the “29 Who Shine,” an award given to one student from each of the 29 public colleges and universities in Massachusetts based on their academic achievement, college leadership and community service.
Zydalis Bauer spoke with Santiago to hear more about her journey migrating to Holyoke from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and what her plans are after graduation.
Read the full transcript:
Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: With college commencements underway, one local graduate will be honored with two exceptional distinctions. Alex Santiago will become the first Holyoke Community College student to graduate with an associate’s degree in Latinx studies.
And Santiago also has been recognized by the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education as one of the “29 Who Shine,” an award given to one student from each of the twenty nine public colleges and universities in the state based on their academic achievement, leadership, and community service.
I spoke with Alex to hear about her journey to Holyoke from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island and what her plans are for after graduation.
Alex Santiago, Latinx Studies at HCC: Latinx Studies is the study of the accomplishments of Latinx communities in the United States. And I pursued this degree because Holyoke Community College offers an interdisciplinary curriculum that provides a critical understanding of Latinx and Caribbean cultures, literature, and politics. And so, I’ve been able to relate it to my experience of being displaced from Puerto Rico by a hurricane.
It’s also a fun major, because it incorporates civic engagement, theater, music, and poetry, etc.
Zydalis Bauer: And I understand that this wasn’t your first major that you chose when you first entered college. What were you originally going to college for and what made you switch majors to Latinx Studies?
Alex Santiago: So, I moved here December of 2017, specifically so I wouldn’t fall behind on my education after the hurricane. I am privileged to have been able to make that move.
And so I had enrolled at HCC for Communications major and I ended up enrolling in a selective learning community called Teatro Neustro. And I realized that I had to change majors because this learning community course made me feel so driven.
Zydalis Bauer: As a Puerto Rican, what did it mean to you to see the representation of your history, your culture, your background in a college major?
Alex Santiago: It is very empowering to learn more about my culture and other Latinx and Caribbean cultures. One of my favorite experiences as a Latin studies major has been my humanities internship, which is a graduation requirement for that major.
And so this semester for my internship, I research archives from the Carlos Vega Collection of Latino History in Holyoke, which can be found at the Wisterihurst Museum. And so, I curated two PowerPoint presentations in Spanish and English, while also curating a trivia game about the collection in both languages.
And I learned about a lot of different facets from the social, political and cultural history of Holyoke.
Zydalis Bauer: Now, when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, many Puerto Ricans were forced to flee the island after the devastation. In a report released by the Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy, Massachusetts was the third most common state for Puerto Ricans to migrate to after the hurricane.
You and your family were among thousands who had to move to the US after the hurricane. Tell me a little bit about your journey and what brought you here.
Alex Santiago: The winter weather was definitely really hard to get used to. Being away from home was also very hard. But as you said, there are a lot of Puerto Ricans in Holyoke, specifically.
It reminds me of Puerto Rico because almost, I think, forty five percent of the population here is Puerto Rican. And so, I’m always hearing the language Spanish in conversations and music. And so, I — but I think the biggest pro about migrating here has been finding a major that I’m truly passionate about.
Zydalis Bauer: Now, in addition to becoming the first Latinx Studies graduate at Holyoke Community College, you are also being recognized by the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education as one of the “29 Who Shine.”
How does one achieve this recognition and how did it feel to receive it?
Alex Santiago: The award, it recognizes twenty nine student graduates from public higher education in Massachusetts, and they are nominated by a faculty or staff member.
And for me, being one of this year’s honorees is an uplifting experience because, as an honors student and vice president or co-president of the Latino Empowerment Association, I had many civic engagement opportunities in my classes, in the college, and the greater Holyoke community.
And these experiences have allowed me to expand my professional skills, but most important for me, is they help me create relationships in my community. And the nomination from my professors is a reflection of the importance of empowering our surrounding communities.
Zydalis Bauer: Now you, as you said, you’re the vice president of this student-led Latinx Empowerment Association at Holyoke Community College, which has really made you become actively involved in the community.
Why does community activism interest you so much? And talk to me about some of those initiatives that you mentioned.
Alex Santiago: What I like most about community activism is that it’s manifested in many different ways, like protesting, poetry, theater, art in general, coalitions. I think that it consists of any action towards social justice, be it in a political, economical, or environmental context.
And so, during the semester, I have been working with club members, OneHolyoke CDC staff members, and Kelly School — Kelly Elementary School in the Flats — to set up and open a Little Free Community Library filled with children’s books.
Two Little Free Libraries have already been established in Holyoke, but they are located in the Highlands, and they’re not easily accessible to children living in the Flats. And my club and I believe in the power of literacy, especially at a young age, and so we are promoting this cause.