San Marcos,
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Preparing the Next Generation of Diverse and Passionate CSU Professors

By David Ogul

Xuan Santos is paying it forward.

Santos, who grew up in a struggling Los Angeles neighborhood overwhelmed with crime and poverty, earned a Ph.D. at UC Santa Barbara and is now a professor of sociology at Cal State San Marcos thanks in large part to a unique program designed to increase the diversity of CSU faculty by supporting the doctoral aspirations of students from underserved populations.

Now he’s serving as a mentor under the same California Pre-Doctoral program to CSUSM graduate student Oscar Soto, who has battled many of the same challenges as Santos.

“I find it an honor working with people like Oscar who grew up in a neighborhood and under conditions that were very similar to what I grew up with, and who has found a refuge in education,” he said.

The California Pre-Doctoral program awards scholarships to some 60 juniors, seniors and graduate students each year in the California State University system. Jointly developed by the CSU and the University of California systems in 1989, the scholarship program prepares students for doctoral study through faculty mentoring, research opportunities and trips to professional conferences. Students selected secure the title as a Sally Casanova Scholar, for whom the pre-doctoral scholarship is named. Along with the honor, each scholar receives a $3,000 grant to pursue their studies.

“It’s opening doors, creating an opportunity for me to continue my educational success and earn a Ph.D.,” Soto said.


That’s what happened to Santos.

Santos was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, and came with his family as a young child to Boyle Heights, a neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles that has become a victim of neglect.

“I grew up in a gang infested community where most of the kids were planning their funerals, not their futures,” said Santos. “There wasn’t much support for going to college. There was no concept of graduate school. You would get harassed for coming home from school with books. You didn’t brag about getting good grades. That was grounds for getting jumped.”

His life changed after he ran into Peter Lafarga, a UC Berkeley graduate and Santos’ high school Spanish teacher. Lafarga saw the promise that Santos had and encouraged him to go to college.

“I didn’t even know there was such a thing as college,” Santos said. “I thought after high school you were done. He planted the seeds. He showed me there was more to the world than what I was exposed to. Until then, I just wanted to be a forklift driver like my dad.”

Instead, he enrolled at Cal State Los Angeles. There he met another mentor, a counselor by the name of Ralph Dawson.

“He used to call me his honor student, and I started believing in it and trying to live up to those expectations,” Santos said. “I started to redefine myself.”

He began hanging out with the “smart kids” and soon started investigating scholarships and grants to continue his education. That brought him in touch with Cristina Bodinger-de Uriarte, who served as his mentor for the pre-doctoral program at Cal State L.A.

“She helped me envision getting a master’s degree, getting a Ph.D.,” said Santos. “She helped me experience a new lifestyle. She showed me the light and helped plan my future and enhance my future.”

Santos earned his master’s degree and then he was off to UC Santa Barbara for his Ph.D. in sociology.

“I want to mentor people the same way Cristina Bodinger-de Uriarte mentored me,” Santos said. “I want to be a role model the same way that Dr. Ralph Dawson was a role model for me. I want to help inspire people the same way Mr. Lafarga helped inspire me. I want to carry on their commitment to empower and transform people’s lives.”

He is certainly making an impact in Soto’s life.

Like Santos, Soto is a first-generation college student. Like Santos, Soto comes from a working class family struggling to make ends meet. Like Santos, Soto’s family emigrated from Mexico. And like Santos, Soto hung out with gang members as a teen.

These days, Soto, who just turned 27, has one goal in mind: earning his Ph.D. en route to becoming a university professor.

“It would allow me to help people who are in similar situations as me and help them see how important an education is—how if you get a good education, you’ll succeed.”

Wesley Schultz, interim dean for Graduate Studies and Research at CSUSM and the Pre-Doctoral program coordinator on campus, agreed.

“The case of Dr. Xuan Santos and his pre-doctoral scholar is a wonderful success story and it shows what efforts like the Sally Casanova Scholar program can do for students in the CSU system,” he said. “Pairing talented students with engaged faculty in a mentoring relationship is a model for success, and we should look for every opportunity to promote these connections.”