May 16, 2005
Desert Ridge High School senior Mayra Santiago, 18, made a discovery when she was in the sixth grade while still struggling to learn English: She was smart.
And she wanted to be a doctor.
"I thought of myself as an average student until then," said Santiago, who grew up speaking Spanish in a working-class home in California. "But then I passed all the tests to be in advanced classes."
Santiago said her parents immigrated from Mexico as teenagers and met in the United States. Both went to work right away — her father in the food service industry and her mother at a window blinds factory — and neither finished high school.
"My dad didn’t even go to school in Mexico," Santiago said. "He took care of the cattle."
But Santiago did not consider her family’s lack of college experience relevant to her career goal.
"Everybody has the ability to do great in life," she said. "It’s up to you."
Next week Santiago will take a major step toward medical school when she graduates third in her class from Desert Ridge, a Mesa campus in the Gilbert Unified School District. She will then head to the University of Arizona in Tucson with a full-tuition presidential scholarship.
Santiago said a 2004 summer internship at Maricopa Medical Center in Phoenix gave her a resolve to become a bilingual pediatrician specializing in difficult pregnancies.
One day when she was not at the hospital, she said a Spanish patient arrived in premature labor. By the time a translator showed up one hour later, the baby had died. Doctors and nurses were unable to communicate with the mother during the entire ordeal.
"If I would have been there, maybe things would have been different," she said.
Although Santiago has taken advanced classes at Desert Ridge since the school opened in 2002, she said a fierce rivalry among ambitious classmates has never developed.
"We all know our rank," she said. "But we love each other. We’re all best friends."
Desert Ridge principal Dan Coombs said he prefers things that way. "I don’t enjoy pre-plotting for class rank and cutthroat competition," he said. "On our campus, we don’t have that."