Lee Vining High’s Andrea Santillan wins prestigious scholarship to Claremont McKenna College

By: 
Caelen McQuilkin
Contributing Writer

It was the afternoon of Dec. 1 and Lee Vining High School senior Andrea Santillan couldn’t stop checking her phone – for good reason.

She was waiting, like she had been for so many long days, for much-anticipated news about her college admissions application?

“I was just looking at my phone, waiting for the email,” she said. “When I clicked on the email, confetti popped out and it said, ‘You matched’ and it was blinking and I was like, ‘No way… I matched!’” (“matched” means she was accepted for a full-ride, four-year scholarship).

Not only will she be the first person in her family to attend a four-year college, but she was accepted to one of the most prestigious colleges in the country – Claremont McKenna College, the sixth-highest ranked liberal arts college in the nation, with an admission rate of a mere nine percent.

The child of a family that moved from Mexico to the Lee Vining community she calls home in search of a better life, Santillan’s hard work and endless hours of study and preparation paid off and she was elated.

“In middle school, I always thought about going to college and getting a big scholarship for it, like something from a Disney movie… but going to school... I realized I could work hard,” she said. “That’s when I realized I could go to college, I could aim higher if I wanted to. High School really made me want to go to college, without being shy or without being worried.”

Santillan applied to college through a national program called QuestBridge, which “connects high-achieving high school seniors from low-income backgrounds with full four-year scholarships to the nation’s top colleges,” according to the program’s website. The program is partnered with 42 top colleges across the nation; these colleges then “match” with the students they admit and grant them a scholarship covering four years of tuition, room and board, books and supplies, and travel expenses.

This year, 18,500 students applied to QuestBridge, and 6,885 were selected as Questbridge scholars and applied to college through the program. Then, 1,464 of these students were admitted to one of the colleges they applied to, becoming “Finalists” and receiving “Match Scholarships.” Seventy eight percent of this year’s Finalists, like Santillan, are part of the first generation in their family to attend a four-year college in the United States.

Santillan, who named her favorite music artists as Bad Bunny, SZA, and J. Cole, and her favorite foods as tacos – was one of those few finalists, “matching” with Claremont McKenna college.

Santillan centered her applications around her unique life experiences: growing up moving between two countries (Mexico and America) and growing up in the small, rural community of Lee Vining.

She had a lot of ideas to sort through.

“Sometimes I would think about it in the night and I’d get up and write down notes and say ‘Okay, I’ll write it tomorrow,’” she said. “I ended up writing about living here and living in Mexico, and how that was really what shaped me and made me, me. I also wrote about my community here, because that’s really what made me grow.”

Every year growing up, Santillan and her family would live in Lee Vining for ten months and in Mexico for two. This experience of moving between nations was formative for her. “School over there was really different… I really learned a lot,” she said. “It was because of Mexico that I got really advanced in math, when I would come back here, I would have already seen what we were doing in math. That’s also what made me fully bilingual.”

The movement between the U.S. and Mexico also shaped the way Santillan sees her identity today.

“It really helped me connect with my roots and my Mexican identity,” she said. “I feel like I’m here and there. I have a piece of both places.”

Her essays expanded on this idea of belonging to two places. She wrote: “Different is not a synonym for separate, but rather it is more complex. It is an opportunity to build bridges that connect us and look at the world from different perspectives, just how we are all looking at the same stars from different places on Earth.”

Santillan also wrote about growing up in the tiny, tightly-knit town of Lee Vining. “(In Lee Vining) I really came out of my comfort zone,” she said. “I started talking more, started participating more in school.”

In her uniquely subtle and quiet but strong and purposeful way that becomes apparent once you know her, Santillan has contributed vast numbers of hours to the LVHS community.

Just a few of the contributions she has made include her involvement in student government – she served for four years of high school, as secretary her sophomore and senior year, and president her junior year. She also played basketball, volleyball and softball for every year possible.

Santillan didn’t always think she would go to college, but in her junior year, she started to take challenging AP courses and at the same time, to pursue social activism. In a yearly LVHS speech contest, she wrote and spoke on courage, activism, and racial justice. In her Junior year, she wrote powerfully about DACA and the American Dream, qualifying for the speech contest finals.

That same summer, Santillan joined six other LVHS students and lobbied Washington D.C. politicians to take climate action.

“When I went to Washington that’s when I was like ‘oh, I can really speak out,’” she said. “We came back, and everybody was interested in what I had to say.”

A few weeks after the conference, Santillan delivered a speech on climate justice in Spanish to much of Lee Vining’s Latino community.

She continued forward with this community activism, helping to organize Lee Vining’s Black Lives Matter march this past summer, among other things.

“Even though our country has its flaws, I really like how there’s room for change in it,” she said. “I like that culture here, that we can push for change.”

Santillan’s family and the wider community were thrilled at the news of her admission to Claremont McKenna – but not surprised, either. They knew she was exceptional. She received her decision at school and the news spread between students and teachers quickly. “When I saw Ms. Taylor’s (Taylor is her English teacher) eyes get watery, my eyes got watery too, and that’s when it felt real,” she said.

“Andrea is one of those students that a teacher is privileged to teach once every 20 years,” said teacher Sarah Taylor. “From her diligence and curiosity to her perception and achievement, Andrea dazzles us all.”

“Andrea has a love for learning that has been apparent since Kindergarten,” said LVHS principal Jeanne Sassin. “I am honored to know such an exceptional person, and can’t wait to see where she goes in life.”

Her friends and family said they always knew she would go far.

“When I first heard the news that she was going to college, it was like the best feeling ever,” said Sergio Santillan, a junior at LVHS and one of Santillan’s cousins and friends. “I was super proud of her on every achievement that she has accomplished… I have seen her grow up and I’m amazed how far she has come. I’m super excited for her because she will face more challenges and experience new things… even though she is sometimes mean to me,” he jokingly added.

The news spread quickly through the rest of Santillan’s family. “At first I just told my mom, but then it spread like fire, to my aunts and all my family members,” she said. “That night, it was my little cousin’s birthday, and I didn’t say anything… but (my cousins) came over and hugged me and they said, ‘Oh, there she is! She got the scholarship!’ Then everybody got up and hugged me.”

Santillan said she is extremely grateful for the “immense support” from her family.

“My mom’s always telling me, ‘I’m super proud of you’... My dad, he asks me a lot of questions… Now he’s preparing me to be on my own, teaching me to drive, giving me little pep talks out of nowhere,” she said.

Beverly Altamirano, another of Santillan’s cousins, close friends, and LVHS junior, said, “When I found out that Andrea got the scholarship, I was extremely proud of her. I was definitely not surprised that she got it because she works so hard every day and she is just so intelligent,” she said. “After… I just started crying because it’s real that she is going to college and I’m super proud of her. I’m going to miss my cousin, my best friend, my person.”

Sayra Galindo, another cousin and close friend of Santillan, said, “I am so proud of Andrea…. I cannot wait to see her accomplish her goals. She’s the first to go to a (four-year) university in our family. We are all so excited and proud of her.”

Santillan’s family living in Mexico was also thrilled, texting her messages like “This is all because of your hard work, I’m so proud,” and “This is so big.”

Looking ahead to the future, Santillan is also thrilled. “I have my student portal already and I’m like ‘No way, wow. I’m getting all these notifications and I’m like okay, this is real.’ They keep telling me, ‘We’re glad you’re joining us in the class of 2025,’” she said.

She expressed her gratitude for Lee Vining High School’s support. Referring to some of her teachers as her “Besties,” she said, “All of them believe in you, push you towards college. I really am grateful that I got to be here in Lee Vining for school… I would have never gotten this kind of help anywhere else. I feel so lucky.”

When asked how she thought it would feel to represent Lee Vining in college, she said, “I’m going to do it with so much pride. I’m going to be so proud of where I’m from and how unique it is, and really embrace that.

“In a big school, I’m going to represent Lee Vining by being helpful and kind, like what they’ve taught me here,” she said. “And really trying to form a community, and being there for people. I think that’s the best way to embrace Lee Vining, because everybody has each other’s back here. It’s just like being a family. That’s an aspect I really want to take with me wherever I go.”

It is clear that the Lee Vining community returns these sentiments. “I know that college is going to be good for (Santillan)... her going to college just makes me want to go to college even more... I can’t wait to see what the future holds for her,” said Altamirano.

When asked about the influence that Santillan has had in his life, Sergio Santillan said, “She has inspired me so much. She inspired me to get out of my comfort zone and to work harder every day to get into a good college,” he said.

“Remember that I will always be here for you, and I wish you the best.”

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