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From homie to Harvard - Area students hear inspiring story

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By Mercy Lopez

Richard Santana was just a regular homeboy hanging out on the streets of California. Orphaned at 3 months with the death of his mother, he was shuffled between foster homes and group homes throughout his childhood. Then, when Santana was 13, his uncle was released from the state penitentiary and began exposing the impressionable teen to drugs, alcohol and violence. Shortly thereafter, Santana — also known as “Señor Chocolate” — found himself involved in gangs and doing anything to get a “hit” of some type of drug or a shot of alcohol. People would tell him he would be better off dead or in prison. “I grew up in a neighborhood where there was a lot of violence, drugs; my situation was crazy,” Santana told Memorial Middle School students on Wednesday. “It never felt good to me. For me, going to school was a way to get away from that.” Despite all he had going against him, Santana somehow managed to escape the hard life he had been living and to go to Harvard, one of the most prestigious universities in the country. Santana, wearing sunglasses and dressed in baggy jeans, an oversized button-down shirt and a black trench coat, shared his story with area students, illustrating that regardless of the obstacle, nothing is impossible. “Maybe something in my message will help you understand what you are supposed to do,” he said. Earlier in the day, Santana spoke to high school students from around the area as part of a one-day event put together to help educate students from Robertson along with seniors from Wagon Mound, Pecos, Mora, Santa Rosa and Peñasco on various important life issues. Santana was flown in to serve as keynote speaker for the Student Empowerment Symposium held at Robertson on Wednesday. Santana told students he realized early on that the life of drugs, violence, and alcohol wasn’t for him and that he knew education was his way out of that type of life. “Let me tell you man, that is a hard life …,” Santana said. “Your attitude, your character, your choices will determine the path you head down.” Against all odds, he graduated from high school, though just barely. Santana, who currently lives in Oakland, then graduated with his bachelor’s degree after eight years in college. He went on to earn a master’s degree from Harvard and now devotes his time to talking about his life experience. “You are not supposed to be doing drugs. You are not supposed to be messing up in school. You are not supposed to be dropping out. You are not supposed to have hate in your heart. You are not supposed to go through the hard life,” he told students. “You are supposed to make it.” Santana said he hoped his story would have an impact on students. Today he is a nationally known speaker, is married and has four daughters. “I knew for myself, I needed a lot of help; I needed a lot of support; I needed a lot of encouragement,” he told students. “I was lucky because as I was heading down that path someone saw something inside of me that I couldn’t see in myself. Someone saw the potential in me that I had no idea I had. Someone took a chance. Someone made a difference. I started to believe that I was worth something … I started to change.” The symposium had been planned for roughly two-months under the direction of RHS principal, Darlene Ulibarri, with the help of staff, as well as students Victoria Jauregui, Maile Hoogerhuies and Nick Loomis. After Santana’s morning keynote address, high school students went to various workshops throughout campus for the rest of the school day. The workshop topics included bullying, sexually transmitted diseases, dating violence, meditation, agriculture, DUI prevention, eating disorders, fire science as a career, money management, suicide prevention, the military as a career, drug enforcement, fire safety and medical lab science. Jauregui said the topics chosen will help students with life skills, careers and educational opportunities in the future. This is the first time Robertson High School has held a daylong symposium for students. The school has, however, been hosting presentations for students on sexual violence since 2008, the year that several football players sexually assaulted underclassmen during a football camp. The New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault has been helping the school coordinate the event since 2008. This year, the school opted to expand the program. “We felt that it was beneficial to have students have this kind of information. We just felt (what had been provided in previous years) was very limited,” Ulibarri said. “We wanted to make sure it was just not a bunch of adults saying ‘the kids will like that’ so we brought in the students to help us.” The day-long event was sponsored by New Mexico Highlands University’s GEAR-UP, Southwest Capital Bank, Las Vegas City Schools, New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault and Charlie’s Spic and Span.