Senior Spotlight: Santos Garcia Avelar ’20 Wins the Gates Public Service Law Scholarship

Senior Spotlight: Santos Garcia Avelar ’20 Wins the Gates Public Service Law Scholarship

Senior Spotlight: Santos Garcia Avelar ’20 Wins the Gates Public Service Law Scholarship

Santos Garcia Avelar ’20 exemplifies everything John Jay prides itself on—hard work, resiliency, academic excellence, and a passion for helping others. Working 70 hours a week in a restaurant, while also being a full-time John Jay Honors Program student, Garcia Avelar never lost sight of his goals. “Having an undocumented status and no financial help while attending college were two challenges that I overcame with tenacity and determination,” says Garcia Avelar, who double majored in Latin American and Latinx Studies and Political Science. “I always understood that education was my escape from a low-socioeconomic status, and that’s exactly what I strive to accomplish.”

“I always understood that education was my escape from a low-socioeconomic status, and that’s exactly what I strive to accomplish.” —Santos Garcia Avelar

Thinking back, what made you want to come to John Jay College?
The factor that made me want to come to John Jay was the incredible Criminal Justice program that we have. At the time, I wanted to get involved in a law enforcement career. Additionally, I noticed that John Jay was a Hispanic-Serving Institution and that was extremely important to me.

When you first came to John Jay, what were some of your biggest challenges? How did you overcome them?
When I came to John Jay—and even before John Jay—I was facing two challenges: One was my undocumented status and the other one was my financial situation. As a high school senior, I found out that as an undocumented student I did not qualify for any financial aid. I was selected for a final interview for a full-ride scholarship at a particular college, and then later I was told that I did not qualify due to my undocumented status. It was painful because it was something completely out of my control. This experience almost discouraged me from attending college at all, because I did not have the financial resources to attend college.

“Many people believe that getting a green card is easy. But what they don’t know is that it takes years—or even decades—to obtain one, and it’s extremely expensive.” —Santos Garcia Avelar

During those years, my financial situation was particularly unstable because all my savings were used to pay for my legal fees during my permanent resident application. This was the only way to overcome my undocumented status. Many people believe that getting a green card is easy. But what they don’t know is that it takes years—or even decades—to obtain one, and it’s extremely expensive. To stay on track and fight for my education, I decided to work 70 hours a week in the restaurant industry, while also going to school.

You’re a member of John Jay’s Honors Program. How has the Honors Program shaped your experience at John Jay?
The John Jay Honors Program has provided me with the classes and the spaces to challenge myself academically. The classes have a rigorous curriculum focused on the common good. This framework has encouraged me to look for various solutions to common problems in our society. These classes enhanced my critical thinking and writing skills. The John Jay Honors Program has also provided me with the information, guidance, and support that I needed throughout the years. They always focused my attention on what’s coming next in my life.

What’s your favorite Honors Program memory?
My favorite memories of the Honors Program are the Christmas celebrations. Everyone in our community just had fun playing games and talking with each other about the holidays, while Mrs. Litna McNickle and Dr. Raymond Patton made sure we were enjoying ourselves. It was truly amazing to see everyone come together like a family.

What are your plans after you graduate from John Jay?
After I graduate from John Jay College, I plan on attending the University of Washington School of Law as a Gates Public Service Scholar. The Gates Public Service Law Program enables scholars to pursue a career path in public service law through the Gates Public Service Law Scholarship, which is a full-ride scholarship covering tuition, room and board, and a summer stipend. I have decided to attend law school because I would love to become an attorney and be a voice for the unrepresented communities in our society. If all goes well, in five years I see myself as a practicing attorney working for the New York City Law Department. I would love to work in the legal counsel or general litigation divisions because it has always been my dream to work on behalf of the people and bring immediate change through the law.

“The Ronald H. Brown Prep Law School Program taught me that many issues in society should be seen from a human rights perspective to efficiently create change.” —Santos Garcia Avelar

Is there a particular classroom, fellowship, or internship experience that helped shape you as a person?
The program that has shaped me to become the person that I am today is the Ronald H. Brown Prep Law School Program (RHB). Since my freshman year at John Jay, this program has been instrumental in my success as a student and law school applicant. RHB has provided me guidance, mentorship, friendships, legal internships, and the opportunity to network with individuals in the legal profession. Dr. Jodie Roure, the director of the RHB at John Jay, has given me the opportunity to participate in international human rights issues through the focus of gender-based violence in Puerto Rico. She also selected me as a member of her humanitarian aid relief brigade in Puerto Rico after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. All of these experiences have taught me valuable lessons such as discipline, compassion, urgency, and a diverse outlook in life. The Ronald H. Brown Prep Law School Program taught me that many issues in society should be seen from a human rights perspective to efficiently create change.

“My family’s immigrant struggles and accomplishments are often overlooked, and I want to make sure that their story is visible wherever I go.” —Santos Garcia Avelar

Is there someone special that’s particularly proud of your accomplishments?
There are a lot of special mentors, employers, family members, staff, and faculty who helped me get to where I am today. First, there’s my family and friends—especially my mother, Maria Avelar, and my girlfriend, Stephanie Johns. Their constant love and support during these past two years has kept me going. They are my biggest motivation to keep working and improving on everything I do. My family’s immigrant struggles and accomplishments are often overlooked, and I want to make sure that their story is visible wherever I go. They sacrificed everything to have a better life in the United States. My father is not here today to celebrate with me because he was assassinated right here in the United States. It happened when I was a baby, but his story of hard work continues to live within me.

“My circumstances were a complete recipe for failure, but with the right support system, I used my challenges as stepping stones to change my circumstances and excel in my academic journey.” —Santos Garcia Avelar

Second, Dr. Roure has been essential to my success. Since I met her during my freshman year, she took me under her mentorship and put me on the path of success. Dr. Roure is the key to my success because she is an incredible human being that does everything to make sure that her students succeed—she even traveled to Washington to make sure that I had the best opportunity to gain admission to the University of Washington School of Law. The other five big mentors in my life have been: Dr. Patton and Ms. McNickle, both pillars of the John Jay Honors Program; the Chair of the Latin American and Latinx Studies Department, Professor José Luis Morín; Osman Canales, from the Long Island Immigrant Student Advocates; and Kimberly Swetland, from the Harris Beach Law Firm. These individuals have been the biggest support system for me and I want to thank them for giving up their time just to help me succeed. Lastly, I want to acknowledge Hugo Garcia, my boss at the restaurant. He gave me a job when no one else would. My circumstances were a complete recipe for failure, but with the right support system, I used my challenges as stepping stones to change my circumstances and excel in my academic journey.