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Originally Published in NPR

Bo Hamby and Dalia Mortada – December 8, 2020

Santiago Potes is one of the hundreds of thousands of DACA-recipients currently living in the U.S. His parents fled Colombia when he was four years old, traveling with Potes to Miami.

Now, Potes, 23, is a graduate of Columbia University and also the first Latino DACA recipient to be awarded a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” he tells NPR’s Morning Edition. “I just thought that they were going to call me, and say ‘Oh, we made a mistake. Sorry about that, we actually didn’t choose you.’ ”

Santiago says his love for learning really took off when he was selected for Marina Esteva’s gifted classroom at Sweetwater Elementary when he was in the second grade.

“It was just such a rigorous elementary school education,” he says. “It was kind of like an intellectual boot camp for elementary school students.”

Potes says Ms. Esteva became his mentor.

Esteva remembers Potes as an attentive learner who took a special interest in her lessons about what it means to be a Renaissance man.

Marina Esteva, Santiago Potes’ teacher from second to fifth grade at Sweetwater Elementary in Miami. Via Santiago Potes

“That word hit him profoundly … and he said to me at that time, ‘That’s what I want to be. I want to be a Renaissance man.’ And now he’s a Rhodes Scholar,” she tells NPR. “That little boy flourished into what he is now.”

Potes says he wasn’t even sure he should pursue the scholarship because the status of DACA – the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects against deportation for some brought to the U.S. as children – was in flux. When the Supreme Court ruled in June for DREAMers like him, he decided to pursue the Rhodes scholarship process. He applied in August and was notified late last month he’d been selected. “If they hadn’t ruled in favor of DACA then I just wouldn’t have applied.”

As one of the 2021 Rhodes Scholars, Potes will head to the University of Oxford in the UK this fall. He plans to study for a Master’s degree in international relations and from there, he wants to come back to the U.S.

“I wanna be a national security expert working at the Department of State or working as a counselor to a senator,” Potes says. “I want to use my academic research to help the United States, ultimately.”