When Hurricane Maria barreled through Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm in September 2017, Karla Santiago reached a major turning point in her life. Maria devastated Santiago’s island, destroyed her mother’s small business and caused millions of dollars in damages to the University of Puerto Rico where she went to school.
But Santiago turned the devastation and chaos around her into a catalyst to chase her dream of moving the mainland United States to finish her education and eventually pursue a marketing career.
“I anxiously left everything I had ever known and entered this university of individuals that welcomed me with open arms and gave me all of the resources I could ever need.” — Karla Santiago, UCF student
“Only weeks after I lived through the hardest moment I ever experienced in my life, I had the good fortune of witnessing first-hand, the integrity UCF stands for when it opened its doors to hundreds of students just like me and offered us a world-class education at a fraction of the cost,” Santiago says. “I knew I would finish the semester here, but it was such an incredible place that I decided to stay permanently and transfer.”
Santiago is one of 244 UCF students who left Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. While the storm expedited Santiago’s journey to Central Florida, she also sought to relocate as the University of Puerto Rico grappled with student protests and strikes that cancelled classes for months.
“I anxiously left everything I had ever known and entered this university of individuals that welcomed me with open arms and gave me all of the resources I could ever need,” Santiago says. “I vividly remember one of those orientation videos with Dean Paul Jarley talking about the pillars of the College of Business, and I got so excited for all the opportunities that would be available to me.”
A pre-marketing major in her junior year, Santiago is heavily involved on campus. She is a member of four student organizations including the Puerto Rican Student Association, Sales Club, American Marketing Association and the Delta Sigma Pi professional business fraternity.
She also holds an internship at CDW Corporation, a technology company, and helps multicultural and first-generation students transition to UCF as part of the university’s Multicultural Academic and Support Services.
Daniel Botero ’12, a College of Business alumnus and senior account manager with Vinali Staffing, provides mentorship and career advice to Santiago. The two met through Delta Sigma Pi, where Botero is president of the fraternity’s alumni chapter.
“I’m so excited to be here and I’m a Knight for life.” — Karla Santiago, UCF student
“I have talked to thousands of students throughout the years but none have left a better first impression than Karla,” Botero says. “Karla possess an unmatched work ethic that will help her reach all her goals. She may say she’s lucky to have me as a mentor, but I am truly lucky to have her as a mentee.”
As a Hurricane Maria evacuee, Santiago receives a reduced, in-state tuition rate thanks to a decision by UCF’s Board of Trustees. The lower tuition rate was set to expire next year, but the board moved to extend the offer through 2023 following an impassioned plea from Santiago and other members of the Puerto Rican Student Association at the board’s September meeting.
“If I was able to be just a small part of something that positively impacted so many people in a similar or even worse situation than mine, how could I turn that down?” she says. “UCF is a second home to me; it’s a community. Just taking one step into involvement has given me a group of people that I love. Every day I come to school and I’m so busy, but I’m so happy. I’m so excited to be here and I’m a Knight for life.”