In 2017, Elizabeth Santiago ’17 sat with tears in her eyes as she and 20 other UCF students were honored March 27 with the Order of Pegasus award, UCF’s highest student honor.

She thought of all those who helped her accomplish such a feat that at one point seemed impossible. She especially thought of her mother in the crowd who herself was told she wasn’t college material while in high school, who worked multiple jobs as a single mother to provide for her children and who motivated Santiago to stay in school when she was close to dropping out.

Santiago, who studied psychology with a minor in legal studies, was struck with grief her freshman year at UCF when her uncle and father figure, who lived in Montana, unexpectedly passed away.

Santiago felt torn between her studies and grieving with her family, who planned to drive across the country to Montana. She thought there was no way to do both. That is, until she was connected with UCF resources that could help her.

Then her former professor and mentor, Cyndia Morales Muñiz ’13EdD, director of UCF’s Hispanic Serving Institution Culture and Partnerships, helped. Muñiz, who was the assistant director for UCF’s Multicultural Academic and Support Services at the time, escorted Santiago to Counseling and Psychological Services to help her cope with her grief.

There, Santiago also got help informing her professors about the situation so a system could be worked out in which she had time to grieve with family but could also complete her courses.

“Being a first-generation student often means you’re on your own because in the realm of college, this is uncharted territory,” Santiago says. “If those resources hadn’t been presented to me at that time, it’s scary to me to think where I could’ve ended up.”

Santiago later became president of the Latin American Student Association at UCF, and a member of the President’s Leadership Council and Chi Upsilon Sigma. She helped educate students about the opportunities and resources available at UCF through one-on-one mentorship and her leadership role with the Latin American Student Association. She also helped connect students with internships, jobs, volunteer work and simply provided guidance on how to achieve certain goals like being a President’s Leadership Council member. She’s mentored at least 13 students through the Latin American Student Association and the President’s Leadership Council.

“I hear a lot of first-generation stories from different students. I’m not one in a million, which I think is great because that means more and more Latino students are coming forth and furthering their education,” Santiago says. “A common link among the first-generation stories I’ve heard, although there are many different faces, is they all want to succeed. They just don’t always know how.”

That was the case for Santiago. She knew she wanted to go to college, but she didn’t know how or where to begin. With the help and support of her mother, together they learned the college application process, what Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) was, and how to take the SAT in Santiago’s senior year of high school in Cape Coral, Florida.

Working part time to help pay for groceries and electric bills, Santiago didn’t have much time to study for the SAT and earned a score lower than she had hoped for. Hopes of attending college didn’t die there, though, as Santiago was offered a spot in UCF’s summer-admission program, Seizing Opportunities for Achievement and Retention. The program connects incoming freshman who demonstrate an academic need with a six-week, two-course schedule, advising sessions, mentoring and more. Successful completion of the program grants SOAR students full admission to UCF.

“When all other schools said ‘no,’ UCF said ‘yes’ and took a chance on me,” Santiago says. “They saw more than just a test score.”

Santiago aspires to be a family attorney for those who can’t afford proper representation.

“It has been amazing watching her grow and her drive to succeed. I just pointed her in the direction of resources and opportunities here at UCF and she took it and ran with it,” Muniz says. “I’m so excited to see what she’s going to do in the future.”