For Santiago Tobar Potes, CC ’20, dedication to education has long been a defining feature of his life. Professor Teodolinda Barolini, with whom Potes took a yearlong course on Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” characterized him as a devoted student who always held himself to a high standard.
“What struck me the most about Santi as I got to know him was how he internalized what he read into the very fiber of his life. I came to see that he has indeed been sustained through significant life travails by his joy in learning,” she said.
This devotion to learning was officially recognized when, last week, he became the first Latino Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program recipient to receive a Rhodes Scholarship. As the oldest international scholarship program, the Rhodes Scholarship is also widely known as one of the most prestigious academic programs for young students, awarded to less than 1 percent of applicants who apply from countries across the world.
Just a few months ago, however, Potes found himself questioning whether he would be able to apply to the Rhodes Scholarship program at all. With the state of DACA in flux after Donald Trump’s administration attempted to dismantle the program earlier this summer, the possibility of attending school abroad seemed impossible. If DACA were to be repealed after Potes left for Oxford University, he would not be able to return to the United States.
“It wasn’t until the Supreme Court let DACA stand in June of this year that I said, ‘OK, this is even a possibility,’” Potes said. “There is a huge systemic barrier of access.”
One of Potes’ main goals was to travel, but when his immigration status posed a significant obstacle, he found other ways to pursue his passions. To get a better picture of countries and cultures across the globe, Potes became fluent in nine languages—English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Haitian Creole, Classical Chinese, Ancient Greek, and Latin—and near-fluent in Mandarin and German.
“I think the reason why I became interested in languages is because I just felt—and, I know this is a strong word, but—incarcerated within the United States pretty much my entire life, and I still kind of do,” Potes said. “I want to travel, to see the world.”
Through studying literature and languages, Potes pieced together ideas of faraway cities in his head to make up for the lack of tangible places he could go. At Columbia, he focused on expanding his worldview across multiple disciplines. Through his four years at the University, Potes did not take a major but pursued a concentration in East Asian studies—an intentional decision to allow him the room to study a wider breadth of subjects, Potes said.
“[My advisor] told me that these are going to be the last four years of my life where I can have limited responsibilities and only focus on my own learning and growth. She really encouraged me to only concentrate, because there’s no need—there’s really no need to major in anything,” Potes said.
While Potes pointed to Chinese foreign policy as his main research interest at Columbia and Oxford, he said that the Core Curriculum helped broaden his interests beyond one specific subject or discipline.
“It has given me a very interdisciplinary approach to things. And in fact, I don’t even view myself as interdisciplinary. I view myself as anti-disciplinary,” Potes said.
This “anti-disciplinary” quality is further shown through the fact that the Columbia professors Potes recognized as most influential to his growth span many different fields. The list includes Brian Greene in the physics department, Barolini in the Italian department, and Bernard Harcourt in the political science department.
At Oxford, Potes’ plans remain as anti-disciplinary as ever. His goal is to earn a master’s degree in global and imperial history, focusing on the intersection of social neuroscience and international relations. After his master’s, Potes aims to obtain his J.D. and Ph.D., conduct policy work, and possibly become a professor—all while spearheading neuroscience applications in international relations research.
Acknowledging the barriers his immigration status posed to his goals, Potes emphasized that he wants to be an inspiration for other people that come from backgrounds like his.
“I really want to inspire the next generation of Latino Rhodes Scholars—not even Rhodes Scholars, just Latinos,” he said. “I come from a very humble background, but that’s just the hand that I was dealt. If you play your cards right, you can do it too.”