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UNLV School of Social Work Lecturer Ivet Santiago poses October 3, 2014 at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. (Aaron Mayes / UNLV Photo Services)
UNLV School of Social Work Lecturer Ivet Santiago poses October 3, 2014 at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. (Aaron Mayes / UNLV Photo Services)

UNLV Graduate — Latino Community Activist

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Ivet Santiago was mentored as a student and is paying it forward to other students and youth in need of guidance.

Santiago is a first generation college graduate. She attained a Bachelor of Science degree in Human Services Counseling with a minor in Communication Studies in 2007 from UNLV, and two years later received her Master of Social Work. She is currently a  lecturer at UNLV, teaching a civic engagement class and undergraduate social work classes.

“I feel like I’ve been at UNLV all my life,” Santiago said.

She works with high school students through the Latino Youth Leadership Conference and serves as a commissioner with the State of Nevada Juvenile Justice Commission. She also sits on the executive board of the Hank Greenspun College of Urban Affairs Alumni Association.

Santiago is 30 years old, born on Feb. 20, 1985 in Compton, California. She spent most of her childhood in El Paso, Texas, and considers it her hometown. Her siblings and cousins weren’t able to go to college due to varying circumstances.

“I saw at a very young age how challenging life can be,” Santiago said. “Given how society has placed all these stereotypes and stigma against the Latino community, specifically Latinas, I made it a mission in high school that I wouldn’t become a statistic.”

She didn’t want to become a teen mom, a dropout or someone involved with the wrong crowd. “I didn’t want that for myself,”Santiago said. “And I didn’t want that for my family.”

Through her work with the Latino Youth Leadership Conference, she is helping to change the statistic and the stigma that is placed on young Latina women.

“Where most of us stop at sympathy, Ms. Santiago is a woman who goes out of her way to fix a problem one person at a time,” said Luis Valera, UNLV Vice President for Government Affairs and Diversity Initiatives.

Santiago has been in Las Vegas for about 16 years. After moving to Las Vegas she began her sophomore year at Clark High School. Besides the challenges of moving to a new state and starting at a new school, Santiago also felt discrimination for the first time.

“The community I was from had a lot of people that looked like me and talked like me,” Santiago said. “But here was the first time I felt discriminated.”

As a high school student she became involved in different student organizations and clubs. It was then, during her junior year of high school, that she attended the leadership conference. “It really answered so many questions that I had about attending higher education and pursuing my dreams,” Santiago said. “It helped with my development and my emotional security.”

It was a pivotal point in her life. “I could see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Santiago said.

She had heard about the leadership conference from other students that attended and from a volunteer that came to her school. She couldn’t attend the first year, because she had to take care of her younger sister. She also had to help her parents out a lot. They knew very little English, so it was her job to take care of all the family’s needs.

“I was the one that carried a lot of the responsibility of translating for them or making sure they weren’t getting scammed,” Santiago said. All of this happened between the ages of 10 and 15, so Santiago had to grow up quickly.

During the leadership conference, she and the other students stayed at UNLV for five nights and had a jam-packed schedule. “It really has impacted my life, and I know it has impacted so many other young lives,” Santiago said.

As a result of her experience, Santiago became a facilitator, an adult facilitator and then the program director for about five years. Now, she is a fundraising and financing co-chair.

She decided to take a more liberal approach while directing the program. “I felt that students needed to be more aware of social issues that were going on in the community,” Santiago said. “I integrated a social justice perspective to the program.”

She started the first conversations about things that were once kept hush-hush, such as teen pregnancy and suicide. She said in the Latino community, these topics are not discussed.

“I knew that my peers and students needed a space to have that dialogue,” Santiago said. “A safe space.”

With any new element you add to a program, there is some pushback, but she was prepared to fight. She knew it was something that was and still is much needed. Santiago considered retiring from the program a few years ago, but couldn’t manage to leave.

“She’s somebody I hardly ever hear say no,” said Jose Melendrez, UNLV Assistant Vice President of Diversity Initiatives. “She’s always willing to get involved, and she’s always willing to give up her personal time.”

Santiago’s goal and the goal of the other fundraising co-chairs is to raise $90,000. It costs $60,000 to hold a six-day program at UNLV. At first, the facilitators were running with the program and seeing what worked. Now they are confident about their infrastructure.

“It just started to grow and grow, and when more students started to hear about it, more students wanted to participate,” Santiago said.

For its 20th anniversary, the program combined with LULAC, League of United Latin American Citizens. It was the biggest conference they ever held: over 200 students participated.

“As a result of our work in the community and the development of this program, we are in the 22nd year,” Santiago said.

The conference organizers have also now developed a pre- and post-conference survey to gather data on the impact the program has on its participants. “It’s great to have students say ‘this changed my life and as a result, I graduated,’” Santiago said, but believes that to have statistics to back it up is even better. Many of the students share their testimonies with the facilitators.

“She’s had to overcome her own challenges,” Melendrez said. “It’s something that she’s lived and that she’s passionate about.”

The adult facilitators have heard from many students who are former gang members or used to be on the wrong path. Now, these individuals have received master’s degrees, law degrees or gone to Ivy League schools. “And they never thought they were capable of achieving that,” Santiago said.

The facilitators felt that if they wanted to receive more funding and at the same time build the program to become an evidence-based program, they would need the research to justify what they’re doing. They have been working on that for the past eight years. Santiago and the Latino Youth Leadership Conference have presented at three national conferences at different institutions. They partner with UNLV and also with Nevada State College and the College of Southern Nevada.

“We understand that financially, students might not be able to start at a four-year institution,” Santiago said.

Since 2004, Santiago has served as commissioner with the Nevada Juvenile Justice System. This will be her last four-year term. Thanks to the leadership conference, she developed a close relationship with the president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce. The LCC helped fund her education. Sometimes she jokes she owes them her life.

Santiago explains that the president of the LCC had met with one of the commissioners of the Juvenile Justice System. While they were discussing servicing youth and developing a mentoring program, the LCC president mentioned Santiago. At the time, Santiago was an undergrad. There was a youth position open, and so the two told her that she could become a commissioner, which made Santiago very excited.

Santiago and a few other commissioners allocate funding to support evidence-based youth initiatives and programming across the state. She loves to read and learn about what others are doing in Nevada to help the youth.

“We hear so much about the negative,” Santiago said. “but at the same time, there is so much good work that’s being done.”

Santiago has always been passionate about the youth, but more recently she has become increasingly passionate about mental health.

“Ms. Santiago is clear in her mission to help others, and she is always prepared to transition from the emotional to the action steps it takes to make a difference,” Valera said.

Santiago was the executive director for a non-profit called Nevada Child Seekers. It was a great opportunity for her, but she felt there were other things in her personal life and in her career that she needed to focus on. It was after leaving Nevada Child Seekers in 2013 that she became a lecturer at UNLV.

Santiago said civic engagement or classes like it are pivotal to students’ critical thinking. Since Las Vegas is such a fast-paced society, and such a diverse community, a big part of the careers stemming from the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs consist of engaging with the community.

“It’s not only important to build relationships with community members and community organizations, but to also be aware of what is going on in the community,” Santiago said.

Civic engagement is a relatively new class at UNLV; it was integrated into the college in fall 2013. Santiago started teaching it in spring 2014. “I’ve really integrated a lot of different components,” Santiago said, “like bringing different community partners into the classroom to talk about their experiences.”

At this point, she has the class fine-tuned and where she wants it to be. “I feel more confident about it,” Santiago said. “The class has been very responsive, and it’s really exciting when students don’t miss class.”

According to Valera, Santiago’s students often stay in touch with her for mentorship and guidance well into and after their college careers. “I’ve witnessed her on countless occasions connect youth to the professional counseling they needed, the financial resources necessary to pay for their college education, and medical attention that has no doubt saved lives,” Valera said.

Her overall goal is to become an executive director of a nonprofit one day. “Maybe once I’m 50 or 60, more seasoned, and I’ve gone through many other experiences, I really want to build my own non-profit,” Santiago said.

After that, she wants to be a professor and teach for the rest of her life. “I want to give back and share my wisdom and experience,” Santiago said.

Santiago has a 5-year-old daughter named Isabell. Everything she has accomplished so far in her career impacts the kind of mother she is and aspires to be. She takes her daughter to rallies, meetings, pride parades and other community events. Santiago and her daughter donate clothes and toys that Isabell has grown out of to different organizations in need.

“My passion is social work,” Santiago said. “My passion is community, and making it a better place for everyone to live and be successful.”

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