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Honoring a Father's Diversity Legacy in Higher Ed

In a precedent-setting career in higher education, the late Dr. Alfredo de los Santos Jr. brought innovation, excellence, and inclusion to community colleges.

De los Santos, a posthumous recipient of a 2023 Diverse Champions Award, is remembered by colleagues as a great friend, an outstanding mind, and a determined educator who placed access and equity at the center of his work. His own journey in higher education began at Laredo Junior College. It subsequently led him to the University of Texas at Austin, where he was the first Latinx person to receive a Ph.D. from the Community College Leadership Program.

Dr. Gerardo de los SantosDr. Gerardo de los Santos“My father, Alfredo, represents so much in so many ways, not just to me, but to generations of leaders who he helped to inspire,” said his son, Dr. Gerardo de los Santos, vice president for community college relations, National University. “He paved the way, and that’s really a metaphor for who he is, about reaching back and helping others and opening doors at a time when that wasn’t as accessible as it is today.

“He represents the best of those who were about access, courage, and tenacity,” he added. “Coming from very poor means and setting a standard for how you support one another, [he was] in this work to support students, our communities, and our nation...”

Dr. Alfredo de los Santos Jr.’s doctorate was the first of multiple firsts in his life. He was the first Latinx person to be named president of a community college, a founder and member-at-large of the Arizona Minority Education Policy Analysis Center at the Commission for Postsecondary Education, and a founding board member of the American Association of Hispanics in Education. Perhaps most notably, he was the founding president of El Paso Community College (EPCC) in Texas.

“The open-door [community] college means we take everybody, and Dr. de los Santos personally personified that philosophy in not only what he said but in how he led,” said Dr. John E. Roueche, executive director, John E. Roueche Center for Community College Leadership, Kansas State University, and a friend of de los Santos for more than 50 years.

When de los Santos became president of El Paso Community College, there was no campus. So he arranged with the U.S. military to renovate and use old facilities. His first challenge was to find the necessary funding, Roueche recalled. It was in a low-income county with not much opportunity for Latinx people. He watched de los Santos take the college from a concept to a viable multi-campus community college district that served its community.

“I believe that Alfredo is best described as an anti-racist,” said Dr. Richard C. Richardson Jr., professor emeritus of higher education at New York University, who first met de los Santos in the 1960s and remained close friends with him until de los Santos’ death in 2020. “His advocacy was for a society that was free from discrimination based on any race or cultural characteristics. He never excluded anyone. His innovations, his contributions were…on all citizens, and he tried to do his very best.”

In 1988, de los Santos and Richardson co-authored the article, “10 Principles for Good Institution Practice in Removing Race/Ethnicity as a Factor in College Completion” for the Educational Record. “Being for diversity is being for what already exists; we are a diverse society,” said Richardson. “Being an anti-racist is removing the barriers to everyone having similar opportunities and similar achievements. He was an advocate for practices that removed barriers and also facilitated completion.”

Citing the work of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, Richardson said de los Santos lived the life of an anti-racist long before that term existed. While he was integral to serving Latinx people in higher education, de los Santos’ scope was more expansive. “He advocated for everybody, and he always believed that everyone should have access,” said Richardson.

Gerardo de los Santos said his father mentored numerous individuals and pushed them to get their doctorates. He inspired and challenged the next generation of scholars to forge ahead and be courageous in their work, noting that his father was particularly proud of shepherding the next generation of leaders.

Richardson said de los Santos went after each opportunity that arose for community colleges, such as cutting-edge technology. “He was vying to make the institutions all that they could be,” Richardson said. “His vision of the future was very expansive, and it did not include any behaviors or circumstances that would limit anyone’s opportunity.”

De los Santos was fond of quirky sayings, and one he often repeated was “Don’t count other people’s socks.” It meant scholars should focus on their own work and not worry about others. In his work, de los Santos served as vice chancellor for student and educational development at Maricopa Community Colleges in Arizona for 21 years. He then worked as a research professor at Arizona State University for 11 years. 

“He had that kind of grit and determination to provide opportunity with excellence,” Roueche said. “He took that same commitment with him when he went to Maricopa and worked with all the colleges in that district.”

Gerardo de los Santos noted that when his father was vice chancellor at the Maricopa Community College system, he made it a point that the schools had access to foundations and funders supportive of first-generation and low-income students, building pathways in higher education. 

“It was about looking at those in need, looking at the community,” he said. “Then, working in partnership, in creative ways to glean the funding, the legislative support to create greater access for those who currently weren’t receiving these educational opportunities.”

In the 1960s, the idea of open access was undefined, Roueche said. Research showed that many people who entered community colleges soon exited. Very few students who were in remedial courses made it to a freshman or sophomore course. In time, scholars came to realize that emphasis needed to be put on student success through student services and counselors for students underprepared for college work.

“El Paso was one of the first in Texas that had more minority enrollment than majority enrollment,” Roueche said. “So many of the students who did well at EPCC transferred to the University of Texas there and did quite well.”

Roueche said de los Santos also envisioned having community colleges within an easy commute for people who would not be residential students. EPCC was one of the first community colleges to embrace the notion of establishing the college where the students are who need it the most.

“He was a strong advocate for quality and excellence in the community college,” said Roueche. “His philosophy was if we admit them, let’s make sure we’re doing everything possible — financial aid, better counseling, better advisement, tracking courses — to make sure the students who are admitted have an opportunity to do well.”

This included not overloading students with courses when they also had jobs and family obligations. “I remember a number of times Alfredo made talks to community college groups about giving students an academic load they can handle,” Roueche said. “He practiced very much what he believed. Those were days that made him a real pioneer.

“It’s one thing to talk about it — being accessible, welcoming, doing things to make a difference — it’s something else to do it,” he added. “Alfredo was talking this talk and walking that walk 50 years ago before anybody else was really jumping on this train to say we can make a difference. … We’ve come a long way and he’s certainly a hero in the community college world and in particular the world of access.”  

David Pluviose contributed to this article.

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