In second grade, Santiago Potes walked into Marina Esteva’s gifted and talented classroom at Sweetwater Elementary School in Miami, Florida, for the first time.
He was an undocumented immigrant from Colombia who entered the country when he was 4 years old. Esteva said she quickly noticed his intelligence and wanted to nurture him toward success.
Now, Potes is the first Latino DACA recipient to be awarded a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.
Potes traces all his success back to Esteva, the teacher he saw twice a week from second to fifth grade in elementary school.
“She was one of the biggest blessings that I’ve had in my entire life so far,” Potes told CNN’s Poppy Harlow.
“My parents didn’t go to college. My parents had me when they were 16 years old. So, she really became kind of like my first mother figure actually. She went out of her way to teach me a rigorous education.”
That included a lesson about what it meant to be a Renaissance man, a term that young Potes took to heart. In addition to his academic success, Potes is also an accomplished violinist and is fluent — or near fluent — in nine languages, one of which is Chinese.
In their announcement, the Rhodes Trust wrote, “Santiago has been a teaching or research assistant for leading professors in physics, philosophy, social psychology and neuroscience, and won numerous college prizes for leadership as well as academic performance. He is widely published on legal issues relating to DACA status, was one of the DACA recipients featured in a brief filed with the Supreme Court to preserve DACA.”
“He is so complete. He’s a well-rounded human being,” Esteva told CNN.
“With the highest moral caliber, with a sense of justice, with a sense of what is excellence, and willing to sacrifice for excellence, not for show, but for excellence itself.”
Esteva is a Cuban refugee and immigrant to the United States herself. She said it means even more to have teacher and student both Latino immigrants and refugees, two generations of opportunity and success in the United States.
“I wish there were a larger national conversation about how important elementary school teachers specifically are,” Potes said.
He said he would not have reached this level of success if Esteva had not told him from an early age that she believed he could do great things.
For her part, Esteva said she just spotted what was already innately in Potes as a child.
“I planted a seed in fertile soil. You took care of a plant. You are the one who made it possible.”
Potes will study contemporary East Asia and international politics at Oxford University with an eye toward working in national security in the United States. His program will begin in October 2021.