THE DALLES, Ore. – At 4 p.m. on April 6, Yahir Santillan-Guzman got an email that would change his life. Just one email, but it was from Harvard University announcing he had been accepted for the fall term.
Get into Harvard? The university receives 40,000 applications a year and only 2,000 – less than 5% – are accepted. While the chances were slim, and Santillan-Guzman wasn’t sure it would happen, he credits people in his community for their encouragement and guidance.
“My mentor and advisor Bill Noonan was a Harvard grad and he said, ‘I think you have what is needed to go to Harvard,’” said Santillan-Guzman, a recent valedictorian of The Dalles High School who was a member of the Oregon State University Extension Service Juntos program for five years.
“I didn’t take him seriously,” Santillan-Guzman said. “A week before the deadline, I thought ‘I might as well. There’s no point in not applying.’”
The 18-year-old straight-A student said he typed up the application essays in 30 minutes. They were honest and straightforward, which Santillan-Guzman believes helped his chances. He was guided by his membership in Juntos, a program launched by OSU Open Campus in 2011 to help students succeed in high school and pursue a post-secondary education.
Juntos helped Santillan-Guzman transform from a shy eighth-grader to student body president and the first Latino valedictorian in the history of The Dalles High School. In Juntos, which means “together” in Spanish, Santillan-Guzman was empowered to take on the college application process. He heard from role models, and he learned to be a leader.
Santillan-Guzman’s first exposure to Juntos happened in middle school in a five-week pre-high school workshop with his parents – mother Elida and father Jose – and sister Sara. Juntos includes both students and their families to engage in culturally relevant programing to meet their education goals in partnership with the school districts and community resources.
Yahir Santillan-Guzman joined The Dalles High School Juntos Club as a sophomore and served as club president as a senior in the digital world forced by COVID-19.
“Juntos really had an immense impact on my high school career,” said Santillan-Guzman. “Learning about college so early gave me a running head start. Being surrounded by other students like that gives you extra motivation. It will help me on my road to the future.”
That future includes a major in economics, which Santillan-Guzman said can take him in many directions.
“I really like the numbers, the math,” he said. “It comes naturally to me. This is a field I’m super interested in. It’s important to go into something I’m passionate about and enjoy studying. Economics is that for me.”
He was inspired by a senior-year economics class, but it was the books and articles he read that cemented his interest.
“I got interested in how economics is the study of why people make the choices they do,” Santillan-Guzman said. “When I branched into macroeconomics and got more in depth, I found quite literally everything is based on economics.”
On the day he would learn of his collegiate future, he wore a Harvard-colored crimson sweatshirt for luck. While he passed the time with his sister and mother, Santillan-Guzman prepared for rejection. Even though he’d been accepted by 11 of the 13 universities he applied to, including Northeastern University in Boston and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Harvard was the end game.
Santillan-Guzman’s father was driving home when the email came. The family tried to wait, but the suspense was too much. They called to tell his father the news.
“My dad cried on the way home,” Santillan-Guzman said. “I’d never seen him cry. My family has been super supportive. They took me to my volunteer activities and made sure school came first. That’s a big advantage I had.”
Even though, he credits Noonan and Andrea Flores, Juntos coordinator in Wasco and Hood River counties, as mentors, Santillan-Guzman said the biggest influence on his life has been his classmate Gheraldy Bobadilla, whom he met through soccer.
“In middle school I was shy and that carried on into my freshman year,” Santillan-Guzman said. “When I met Gheraldy, he pushed me, took me out of my shell. I joined the Juntos Club when he invited me. That’s where I got the ball rolling to the person I am today.”
In addition to the time and energy it takes to earn a 4.0, Santillan-Guzman has a part-time job that takes up 25 to 30 hours of his week. Still, he sat on the high school’s leadership board for National Honors Society and was president of Key Club. He played soccer and tennis but had to give those up during his booked-up senior year.
“Yahir is a true leader and admirable,” said Flores. “I can’t wait to see what the future holds for him.”
For his valedictorian speech, Santillan-Guzman spoke in Spanish, encouraging other Latinos to push hard for success.
“I emphasized the fact that a lot of people see graduation as an end, but this is only the beginning of big things,” he said. “I grew up with these kids. We’re going to succeed because as Hispanics we’re not given anything in this country. Anything we have, we’ve worked hard for.”