Samuel Vilchez Santiago’s life has in many ways been shaped by politics. “I am originally from Venezuela, and both of my parents were very politically involved in local politics. They were sacrificing their own safety in a country led by a dictator. Eventually due to political persecution we moved to the U.S.,” said Vilchez Santiago. He cites this aspect of his background as part of the reason he is so actively engaged in advocating for political causes as well as building community both on and off campus.
As a recognition of these efforts, Vilchez Santiago has been chosen to receive the 2019 Priscilla Glickman ’92 Memorial Prize, which is given to a Princeton senior who has demonstrated independence and imagination in the area of community service, seeks knowledge and purposeful adventure in unfamiliar cultures, and maintains strong academic work. The prize commends the qualities of curiosity in the world and commitment to the betterment of society by recognizing outstanding past contributions to community service. The prize encourages the student recipient to explore new challenges in the future and is announced annually at Class Day.
Vilchez Santiago, a politics concentrator, credits his choice of study to both his background and experiences he had while at Princeton.
“I grew up with politics in my house,” he said. “My grandfather was a communist and my parents were very politically involved against the Chavista regime. For the longest time I tried to run from politics, but I think it was in high school when I realized that it was my passion. Once I was here I was deciding between the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and politics, and I chose politics because of an incredible professor I had: Professor Alisha Holland.”
Professor Holland herself praises Vilchez Santiago as “a talented, warm, and extroverted student...who brings a lot of spirit to the campus.” Professor Holland also commended Vilchez Santiago’s thesis, which is connected to his homeland of Venezuela and the crisis that caused he and his family to leave. “His thesis is an interesting exploration of why Venezuelan migrants have been received so differently across Latin American countries,” she said.
On top of his rigorous course load, Vilchez Santiago has also been engaged in plenty of memorable experiences connected to his activism and political organization.
“In my sophomore spring I had the opportunity of meeting Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’76 in a small group setting,” he said. “We were in the basement of Richardson Auditorium as part of the Adelante Tigres Latinx Alumni Conference. We got to meet with her for 45 minutes, and listening to her as someone I looked up to my entire life was very meaningful, in particular because that she mentioned her experiences going through Princeton as a woman of color and of low income background. I actually met her again the summer of my junior year and she remembered my name.”
Vilchez Santiago also notes how his passion for activism was catalyzed early on in his Princeton career. “Participating in a sit-in with the Black Justice League in the beginning of my freshman year helped me get an understanding of how activism worked at the University,” he said. “I then got involved with Princeton Latinos y Amigos (PLA).”
PLA, which Samuel has been involved with all four years of his time at Princeton, is committed to strengthening Princeton’s Latinx community while educating others about it. It also deals with important sociocultural issues relevant to Princeton, the United States, and the world.
“PLA does everything from community building, cultural celebration, and advocacy,” said Vilchez Santiago. “Actually a lot of things we have advocated for have been implemented in the last few years.” For example, the organization successfully advocated for the incorporation of Latino Studies in American Studies, as well as the incorporation of a new academic requirement for equity, diversity, and inclusion. “We also proposed internal policies to support undocumented students on campus as a response to DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals],” he said. “We were there for all of that.”
“PLA also focuses on community service,” he continued. “We have helped in different matters such as raising money for Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.”
Activism and academics can be deeply intertwined, according to Vilchez Santiago, who describes how “the politics department challenges me to think differently about different issues through learning about activism, learning how to write and think about problems and solutions, both in the United States and around the world.” Taking a class on public opinion in the United States the spring of his junior year, enabled him to more effectively lead a political campaign. “A lot of the learning I did in that class helped,” he said.
Vilchez Santiago’s political campaign experience includes serving as the Human Resources and Diversity Intern for Hillary for America in 2016, and helping a former teacher and mentor, Johanna Lopez, earn a seat at on the Orange County School Board in Orlando, Florida in 2018 by serving as her campaign manager. Though he was able to be in Orlando for some of this work, he accomplished much of it as a full-time student during the 2017-2018 school year.
This talent for political organization has not gone unnoticed on campus. Among the many who have praised Vilchez Santiago for his political work is Deputy Dean of Undergraduate Students Thomas Dunne, who describes how Vilchez Santiago “has worked tirelessly to build community within and advocate for the Latinx community on campus. Samuel has co-led advocacy efforts to highlight the needs of undocumented and DACA students at Princeton...Samuel did a great job of strengthening and unifying the Latinx community at Princeton.”
Student activism is a slow but necessary process, said Vilchez Santiago. “What I’ve seen in the last four years is that students advocate for change...and that change takes a while,” he said. “I have seen important changes in my time here. I recognize that the University eventually agrees to a lot of student activist demands, but it takes a while.”
Alongside his on-campus activism, Vilchez Santiago also has an impressive record of political engagement outside of the “orange bubble.” An internship with a Florida non-profit named Mi Familia Vota allowed Vilchez Santiago the opportunity to encourage political engagement and voting in the Latinx community of Florida. This was done through voter registration drives which registered more than 33,000 people to vote.
What’s more, Vilchez Santiago also organized an education-focused program called Keys to Success, through which he toured different high schools in order to present information about academic success at the high school level, college admissions, and financial aid. For this work, Vilchez Santiago was invited to speak with members of the Orange County School Board and was also invited to be a Keynote Speaker at the Orange County Public School’s Spirit of Excellence Awards Night.
Soraya Marquez, Mi Famila Vota’s former state coordinator, emphasized how the Orange County School Board made sure that his presentations were accessible and available to all, saying “I saw him turn his knowledge on college admissions and financial aid into a series of presentations that have impacted thousands of predominantly Hispanic families in the Central Florida region,” she said. “In fact, some of my students have gone to college because of the information provided to them at Samuel’s ‘Las claves del éxito,’ (Keys to Success) which are fully inclusive of Spanish-speaking and low-income people. Significantly, Samuel understands that our capacity to bring about change relies on bringing people together to fight for a common purpose.”
Connected to his focus on his personal civic engagement is Samuel’s awareness of where Princeton stands in pushing for reform regarding issues that Samuel cares about, such as immigration. When asked about Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber and all of New Jersey four-year college leaders coming together to express concern about the obstacles faced in attracting and retaining international faculty, students, and staff given current immigration policies, Vilchez Santiago replied “I recognize that the university has been leading the fight for undocumented students.” However, he does express concern over the framing of the issue by President Eisgruber and others, saying “President Eisgruber talks about immigrants because they are scholars, but what about immigrants that are not?”
Vilchez Santiago has also made sure to leave his impact on the broader Princeton community through Princeton’s student government, where he served on the University Student Life Committee and as a U-councilor. Through these positions, Vilchez Santiago has worked on projects such as diversifying the honor committee and reforming the University calendar.
As for his post-graduation plans, Vilchez Santiago will be enrolling in a master’s degree program in public administration at the University of Southern California, and will also be advising a non-profit organization called Ciudadano that assists people going through the citizenship application process in the Latinx community of central Florida.
Vilchez Santiago sees this award as the culmination and recognition of not only his own work, but that of all those who have contributed to his academic and activist successes.
“I feel very honored,” he said. “No one does service to be recognized, but it does feel good when one is recognized. More than anything this prize humbles me. The prize is a result of the sacrifices of many people in my life. My friends who have been there, my family members who are still in Venezuela...and my mentors and advisers. I feel honored, but I recognize that the prize recognizes more than just me.”
Homepage photo by Sameer Khan, Fotobuddy.