A first generation college graduate, the 2018 Distinguished Alumni Speaker graduated from Cerro Coso in 2002 with an Associate of Art Degree in Social Science and went on to earn a Bachelor of Art's Degree in Sociology with a Minor in Music from California State University, Bakersfield.
During her time at Cerro Coso, she served as Vice President of the Associated Student Body, and President of the Special Services Club. While at Cal State Bakersfield, she served as the Social Chair of the Kappa Delta Nu Sorority and performed at Carnegie Hall with the CSUB Singers.
At Cerro Coso, Erika Santiago found her mission and purpose in life, and is very passionate about her work as a Social Worker for the Kern County Department of Human Services where she facilitates Welfare to Work Employment Workshops and carries the Family Reunification caseload.
“What makes a college degree special?” said Santiago to the graduates. “Unlike the stock market our degrees never lose value,” she went on to explain. “No matter how much educational debt you incur your degree will never be repossessed. A college degree cannot be inherited; it must be earned by your own merits. A child of a Salvadorian woman who came to this country escaping the Civil War that lasted 12 years, my mother reminded me that I was privileged enough to be born in the ‘Land of Opportunities' and that it was up to me to make something of myself.”
“What is the legacy you want to leave behind?” she challenged. “Mine was to inspire my younger brothers to attend Cerro Coso, and to become a strong woman that would be self-sufficient and independent and would be able to help my family financially. I also wanted to be a role model for other children and youth in our community by encouraging them to seek a higher education. I wanted them to see that with all the disadvantages and barriers we had a college degree was still attainable.”
“When I graduated from high school my father told me that if I wanted to go to college I was going to have to figure it out. I got a job and worked six months in Lone Pine to save enough to pay my first year of tuition. I then found another person who was planning on attending Cerro Coso and convinced her to pick me up on highway 395 in the mornings and we would split gasoline cost so I could attend college since I did not have a car. I did most of my computer work on campus and would do most of my reading on the drive back and forth and weekends. I recall having a hunger for knowledge and being so excited to attend class. I started seeing and meeting women holding positions of power at the college that seemed passionate about what they were doing. That inspired me to be like them, they became my role models! They had no knowledge of it and I probably never told them but they served as the career poster women of what was attainable.”
To date, Santiago and three of her siblings have attended Cerro Coso Community College. Three Cerro Coso Community College Degrees and three Bachelor Degrees decorating her mother's walls, her pride and joy. Her youngest brother John is currently attending the college.
“Let's not forget,” concluded Santiago. “It is up to us to provide the value our educational degree deserves and hold Cerro Coso Community College's name up high.”
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