“My parents led civil rights and social justice initiatives at the grassroots level with the Young Lords and wanted me to be able to create change from the inside,” said Santiago-Mikel. “They saw being a lawyer as the most effective way of achieving that.”
Her parents moved from New York to Puerto Rico shortly before she was born and instilled within her a strict awareness of the hardships many face. From day one, she was brought up to understand education’s role in economic mobility.
“The conversation at the dinner table was usually about how important education was, and how it could pull people out of poverty,” said Santiago-Mikel.
And as she grew older and developed a deeper understanding of the dynamics at play between education and economic outcomes in her tightly knit community, her parents educated themselves.
“Both of my parents got a degree after I was born,” said Santiago-Mikel. “They wanted to lead by example.” While working class, her parents’ self-owned small business afforded Izmira access to the island’s Catholic schools. It was an investment Santiago-Mikel never took for granted.
In high school, Santiago-Mikel discovered an affinity for music and a skill for handling numbers; passions that didn’t necessarily align with the trade of law. As she looked ahead to college her senior year, she decided to attend the University of Puerto Rico on her mom’s advice, focusing on pre-law classes nonetheless.
The university offered Santiago-Mikel a sweeping view of passionate advocates for social justice on the ground, which she found intriguing. Yet, in her classes, she grew convinced the law path was not for her. After her freshman year, she struck out on her own, moving to the US and enrolling at a music school in New York. There, she merged her affinity for numbers and music by focusing on sound engineering and receiving a bachelor’s degree in Business Management. The degree led to work in the music industry, managing artists.
“It was fun while it lasted, but it wasn’t necessarily the social justice work I was raised in,” Santiago-Mikel said. “I wasn’t directly helping anybody.”
Things began to change in 2008, when Santiago-Mikel’s parents moved to Florida. The recession hit her family hard.
“They pretty much lost everything they had worked for,” said Santiago Mikel. She began to reflect at great length on her upbringing and goals. She felt she wasn’t accomplishing what she had been raised to achieve – to bring change to people’s lives, including those of her family.
That year, Santiago-Mikel enrolled in business school, receiving her MBA and immediately putting her skills to use for Verizon, before joining the Department of Homeland Security. Her unique experience resulted in her recruitment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she has since taken on numerous roles.
“I initially started on the advocacy team, doing policy work, and now – serendipitously – I’m on the Postsecondary Success team,” she said. “The push for change my parents taught me at an early age is something I’m doing now – in a different way.”
As an associate program officer, Santiago-Mikel has touched many components of the Postsecondary Success strategy, dealing with data creation, overseeing the scholarships portfolio, building knowledge about emergency aid for students, strategy management and planning and the foundation’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. She’s was also involved in the creation of the strategy’s civil rights and equity portfolios.
Of all the work, Santiago-Mikel is most inspired by the Postsecondary Value Commission. The Value Commission seeks to address questions regarding the return on investment of college with much-needed conversations about whether – and how – colleges and universities are providing opportunities for economic mobility for their students. The foundation has partnered with the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) to examine the value of a postsecondary education and offer recommendations about how to define and measure that value.
“I think the value piece is essential and isn’t something we’ve done before,” Santiago-Mikel said. “It’s allowing us to determine what an actual, valuable credential looks like. And we haven’t exactly crystallized that yet. We’re having discussions about education and economic mobility, which are important parts of our overall Postsecondary Success strategy.”
Outside of the Postsecondary Success work, Santiago-Mikel leads the employee resource group Latinos in Philanthropy, helping and engaging others using her skill set and network at the foundation. It’s these experiences with people in the community – and colleagues– that keep her motivated.
One experience in particular came during an event in Washington, DC when Santiago-Mikel ran into a Gates Millennium Scholarship recipient.
“She approached me and asked, ‘You work for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation?’ and gave me a hug,” said Santiago-Mikel. “This is a woman who now works for The World Bank. It’s amazing to have a conversation with someone who took advantage of an opportunity and did their best.”
For Santiago-Mikel, those exchanges make her feel like she’s doing the work she was raised to complete.
“My favorite part is collaborating with incredibly smart people who are passionate about the work we do,” she said. “This is their life’s work – this is our life’s work – we are able to share ideas and implement strategies that help students who look like me. That’s inspiring to say the least.”