Story of a turnaround
By Connie Conway

Jason Santiago '09

Meeting confident, self-assured Jason Santiago ’09, head coordinator of WCSU’s summer 2010 Educational Achievement & Access Program (EAP), it’s hard to believe so many obstacles once blocked his path to a college education.

“Jason had quite a journey as an EAP student himself here at WestConn,” says Ismael Diaz, director of Pre-Collegiate & Access Programs at the university. “The program provides underprepared students with the support they need to obtain a college education. Jason made real adjustments over the years in order to succeed.”

Reasons not to succeed included Santiago’s reading disability, poor grades and tendency to fight bullies who tried to victimize fellow students. Though his parents were divorced, Santiago was raised by a strong mother who kept him out of any real trouble.

“Mom was supportive,” he says. “But you knew her rules. Still, I had no motivation. I wasn’t going anywhere and figured college was way out of my reach.”

What he would discover is that 180-degree turns are always possible — especially with the help of good mentors. His own “turn” started at Vinal Technical High School, where he was in the culinary arts program.

“The coach at Vinal got me into football,” he recalls. “He said, ‘Why not channel that anger into energy on the field? It’s better than knocking heads together in school!’” Santiago loved football, and joined the team.

But his enthusiasm for the culinary program at Vinal was evaporating. “I knew cooking wasn’t really what I wanted to do,” he says. He switched to Cromwell High School, stayed out of fights, made the football team there and, with the help of tutors, earned marks good enough to keep playing.

Good thing, because it was in football that Santiago’s leadership qualities had begun showing through. The sport kept him focused. “I developed discipline,” he explains. “Football is a character builder.” By his senior year, he’d earned the position of Cromwell’s football team captain.

Then he heard about EAP. “I got into it thinking, ‘maybe I can make it to college,’” Santiago says with a slight smile. “The program helped me get accepted to WestConn.” Intending a business major, he struggled, but managed to play football.

Santiago’s talent and leadership earned him an MVP award and the position of the Colonials’ team captain, but not before he made another key “turn.” Business wasn’t the right fit for him, he realized; his true interest was in law enforcement. He switched into WestConn’s Division of Justice and Law Administration (JLA), where he eventually excelled.

“I had great teachers at WestConn,” says Santiago. “Like JLA Professor Chuck Mullaney. He lives the law and loves it. In class, he relates it to life, rather than just teaching it from a book.”

“Jason’s turnaround is one of the best I’ve seen in years,” says Mullaney. “He went from nearly failing to becoming a terrific student.”

Santiago made dean’s list, was a resident assistant and a student worker at EAP. After graduation, he continued mentoring kids in his EAP coordinator’s position. “If I don’t know the answer to their questions, I find out who does,” he says. “It’s like being a big brother and a role model, both. And it’s a way for me to give back for the chance I got to earn my education.”

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