A dream come true
By Josh Ellerbrock
Published in News on June 11, 2013 1:46 PM
Santos Saldivar, fourth from left, talks about his plans to start classes Campbell University in the fall after being the first person in his family to attend college. Saldivar will be pursuing a degree in pharmacy. Seated with Santos are his father, Jose, brother, Edgar, 5, mother, Aurora and sister, Cristina, 12.
Santos Saldivar and his father, Jose, are a lot alike.
Both are hard workers looking to make their lives better.
And both have similar dreams.
Jose wanted to do whatever it took to see his son go to college.
Santos wanted to do whatever it took to earn the right to be there.
And now, both will get their wish.
Santos, 18, will attend Campbell University this August with the hope of becoming a pharmacist. He recently received a major boost toward that goal thanks to the Gates Millennium Scholarship program giving him a full ride to the college of his choice, for both his undergraduate and graduate careers.
Jose will see his dream for his eldest son realized -- decades after his own journey started at age 17 more than 2,000 miles away in Jalisco, Mexico.
The Saldivars' story is that of the American dream -- going from nothing to something thanks to the better opportunities afforded to Jose and his wife, Aurora, when they settled down in North Carolina.
And after two generations of hard work, the Saldivar family will soon not only include a field worker, but also a pharmacist.
One day in April, Santos got an envelope in the mail.
"It says Gates on it. I felt it first -- like a present -- anxious and all that. I feel it, and it's kind of thick. That's good. It's not just a sheet of paper in a big envelope. I open it and pull it out, and I'm kind of praying 'please, please, please.' Then the first thing I read, 'Congratulations ... And I'm like 'Mom, Mom, Dad, I got it! I got it!" Santos said.
"My mom and dad were almost falling in tears -- all the excitement. I was excited. I didn't know how to react. You know what I'm talking about? I wanted to react, but then I'm like what? It was an amazing feeling," he said.
His father felt the importance of the moment, too.
"You know? That was one of the greatest things that ever happened to us," Jose said. "We were stunned. I can't believe we got it."
It was a long road to that envelope.
For the last year, the high school senior has been busy doing extracurricular activities, getting elected to committees, leading the Southern Wayne High School football team as captain and working at Smithfield's Chicken and Barbecue in Newton Grove.
Sometimes he would come home long after his father got home from work and then sit on the computer and wade through calculus long after midnight making sure his grades stayed at the top.
On the weekends, he would go to work at Smithfield's trying to save up for college. Santos works in the kitchens preparing plates of barbecue sandwiches.
"Everything that's behind what the waiters do. That's what I do," he said.
Because of his busy schedule, he hasn't even had the time to go to church because he's often needed to serve the busy after-church crowd.
And then there's football. Santos has been playing varsity since his sophomore year at Southern Wayne High School and was given the captain position due to his leadership and "getting (the team) pumped up."
"It's been a hassle balancing grades and football. It was really strenuous for me, but it's all worth it now," he said.
The Gates Millennium Scholarship will pay completely for housing and tuition for Santos and a college of his choice for both undergraduate and graduate programs. The scholarship is only awarded to 1,000 students across the nation, and requires that Santos maintain a 3.3 grade point average every year to renew it. More than 54,000 students applied for the scholarship this last year.
To apply, Santos had to write eight essays answering questions about the issues of being a minority, the advantages and disadvantages of diversity, his leadership skills and his future plans.
Those plans -- his goal of becoming a pharmacist -- helped cinch it. Eventually, Santos wants to return to the local area, open a pharmacy and help the Hispanic community whose medical needs often literally get lost in translation.
"I see it as an opportunity for me to make at least a small difference. ... There aren't any Hispanic pharmacists and I want to start off with a change in that. .... For example, my mom's customers that are Hispanic -- a lot of them don't know how to speak English or they don't know how to speak fluently. It's hard for them to understand. I see them struggle a lot of times trying to talk to the pharmacist. They go over there, and they don't know how to communicate." Santos said.
"And then a lot of them have this issue -- they have this trust issue. There are some Hispanics that don't have citizenship and they're scared to ask certain questions. ... If I become (a pharmacist), I see it as an easier way for Hispanics to feel more comfortable to come to the pharmacies, and maybe, by other people seeing 'oh, there's a Hispanic pharmacist over there' -- that it will help other people kind of follow that road. I want to pave a path for other people," he said.
Since receiving the scholarship, Santos has gotten some minor celebrity recognition by family and co-workers.
"It's crazy, but now, my boss, my manager, he took a picture of me. ... He sent all the info to the president of the company," Santos said.
His family is also making sure that everyone knows of his achievement.
"Mom talked to family in Mexico. They're so excited. My grandpa over there. His kids didn't go to college. They didn't have the opportunity over there, so he's really excited to hear that one of his grandchildren is doing something here," Santos said.
Santos is the only one in his extended family to go to a four-year institution.
His parents never had that chance. Both grew up in Mexico with educations stopping at sixth grade. Jose recalled going out in the fields at 12 because his family needed the money, and school was too far away in town.
Jose first moved with his brothers to the United States at age 17 to take a chance at a better opportunity a nation away.
"When you're young, you're barely making it," he said. "I had to come and give it a shot. You just didn't have the opportunities down there."
He has been here ever since. In those subsequent 25 years, his Mexican accent has evolved halfway into a southern drawl.
His first year, Jose worked in the fields. The second, he started in construction. That career path led him to where he is now working as his own boss as a building framer even using his construction skills to extend a simple mobile home into a 5,000-square-foot hodgepodge home to fit his family.
His parents' sacrifices and hard work are not lost on Santos.
"My parents -- they weren't given the opportunities that I was given. They come from Mexico, and it's poor. They come from a poor family," he said. "As I grew up, I saw my dad was working really hard to provide for me. He started from nothing. They came from nothing, and now, my dad owns his own construction company."
Santos is hoping that his college career will help influence his own siblings. Edgar, 5, will be starting school next year (Santos describes him as a bundle of energy) and Cristina, 12, who might be as smart as her older brother.
"I think she's got a good shot," Santos said.
"We are really proud of all of them." Jose said. "Once you have kids, your life changes. You start thinking about them instead of yourself."
Even if Santos hadn't received the Gates Scholarship, Jose said he still would have gone to college. Jose would have done whatever was necessary to get the money for his son's education, and Santos had saved up after working at Smithfield's.
He is glad that because of the scholarship, he will get to go to Campbell.
"(Campbell) seemed really passionate about what they do there. They weren't like State or UNC who just talked about what they offer. Every college does that. When I went there, they were enthusiastic about what they offer," Santos said.
And now that Santos has the scholarship, Jose very much doubts that anything -- whether it be football, partying or a monstrous late night bill from Santos' favorite pizza place, Papa John's -- will stop his son from maintaining the required 3.3 GPA and continuing his education until he gets his degree
"We've been around each other every day since he's been born. I think I know enough about him that I don't have to worry about that. He's the type of person who looks more toward the future," Jose said.
"I don't have the words to say how proud I am."