Statewide Program Puts Doctoral Degrees Within Reach
By Giselle Luevanos
A belief can go a long way.
There was a time when Cal State San Marcos sociology professor Xuan Santos didn’t believe – or even know – that earning a Ph.D. was possible. As a first-generation, system-impacted, undocumented student, Santos was already defying the odds by pursuing a bachelor’s degree. One day, he saw an A-frame near the Cal State Los Angeles administration building promoting the California Pre-Doctoral Program, which changed everything.
“It gave me wings so I could one day envision being a CSU faculty member,” Santos said of the program. “I was able to immerse myself in that academic culture.”
The program gives historically underrepresented CSU students the tools to succeed in doctoral studies and supports a pipeline for diverse future CSU faculty. Students selected for the program are named Sally Casanova scholars. They receive faculty mentoring and a $5,000 scholarship to help fund university visits, research experiences, graduate school applications and more.
The program connected Santos with valuable faculty mentors who believed in him. He has since mentored seven program scholars and has made it his mission to pay it forward to the next generation. Santos has watched formerly incarcerated students, foster care students and undocumented students all rise above their circumstances and succeed in the program.
“It’s gratifying for a student to finally meet their advocate,” he said. “For someone who grew up in a humble space, in a place where people are planning their funerals and not their futures, it’s beautiful to see that we have roses that grew up.”
Earlier this year, Santos was named faculty director for the California Pre-Doctoral Program after the previous director’s retirement. He was emotional about the full-circle opportunity to serve in the role and sees an even greater opportunity to broaden the scope of applicants and open more doors for students.
“It’s a dream come true,” Santos said of becoming the program’s faculty director. “The CSU is about creating social mobility, and that’s the mantra of our institution (at CSUSM). I am a product of the CSU.”
The 2024-25 program application is open, and Santos hopes to see more CSUSM students step forward and take advantage of the program.
Santos said there is no pressure to get into a Ph.D. program right away, but scholars gain access and insight into doctoral studies to prepare them. Interested program applicants are encouraged to identify a faculty mentor who can support them for the next year. Application requirements include preparing a budget proposal for the scholarship funds and submitting essay answers to a few core questions.
“Whatever dreams they have, we’re here to assist them,” Santos said of the scholars. “The framework I use as a scholar is that all of us need to become OGs. Not original gangsters, but opportunity givers. It’s about promoting empowerment, social change and mobilization of resources.”