Exemplary Student Spotlight: Santos Plaza - Voice of San Diego

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Exemplary Student Spotlight: Santos Plaza

Santos speaking at the AVID national conference in 2018. / Photo courtesy of O’Farrell Charter School

By Sarah Beauchemin

At The O’Farrell Charter School – San Diego’s leading TK-12 AVID Schoolwide Site of Distinction – the classrooms are filled with outstanding students who deeply value their coursework, family, community and peers. 

But even in this sea of excellence, there are still a few students that truly stand out as exemplary. 

Santos Plaza, OCS high school senior, is one such individual.

This year, OCS is proud to honor Santos’ magnificent academic and community achievements, his high character and his commitment to making his school, and the world, a better place. 

Flourishing from hardship into success 

Although Santos Plaza has always valued hard work, cooperation and helping others, he wasn’t always the outgoing leader he is at OCS today. 

“He was a quiet kid socially,” said his father, Santos Plaza, Sr. “When he was younger at school, he pretty much just kept to himself.” 

Santos faced some serious challenges growing up. Two of his close friends passed away. His parents had a rocky marriage that ended in divorce. And he was also bullied. 

But Santos decided that he would not allow adversity to keep from him succeeding and living a vibrant, positive life. He largely credits his mother and grandmother with helping him do this. 

“They are my two personal heroes,” said Santos. “The strongest women I know, sacrificing so much of their time and energy to help us stay afloat. These two women truly inspire me to be a better person and give 100% every day, with everything I do.” 

The staff and students at OCS are fortunate to have reaped the benefits of Santos’ full commitment to all he does. 

“Santos is an amazing human being,” said Jessica Nguyen, OCS instructor and Key Club advisor. “He consistently shows a positive attitude, empathy towards others and leadership. He possesses such a strong, caring heart.” 

Santos demonstrates these character traits through his numerous accomplishments at OCS.

For example, in addition to taking AP classes, Santos is a member of the National Honors Society, president of both the Associated Student Body and Key Club and he manages the school’s volleyball team. He even traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend the National Youth Leadership Forum.

Santos with his ‘little buddy.’ High schoolers pair up with elementary schoolers and mentor them throughout the year. / Photo courtesy of O’Farrell Charter School

But of all his OCS achievements, Santos is most proud of growing Key Club from a small group of 30 students to nearly 100 – a fact that highlights his passion for being a community service advocate. 

“After the two years that I was Key Club president, we’d branched out into almost every part of OCS,” he said. “We would show up at every event. It is very inspiring to see other students who want to give back to the community as much as I do.” 

Santos’ ability to grow Key Club and involve his peers in community service is just one example of how other students look to Santos for guidance and inspiration. 

For instance, after a series of vandalism incidents in the boys’ bathroom, Santos led a boys’ assembly where he spoke to them about stepping up and taking care of the OCS campus.  Afterward, the vandalism stopped.

“Santos is a role model for all our students,” said Brian Rainey, OCS high school principal.  “Students respect him because he leads by example.”

Inspiring others to do good and make change

When the annual AVID conference in San Diego came around this year, it was clear to OCS staff that Santos would make an ideal addition to the featured student panel there. He eagerly agreed to speak in front of over 1,000 educators. 

“Santos answered questions about the impact of AVID on him and his school,” said Jill Andersen, middle school principal and AVID district coordinator. “He shared how AVID has guided him to be a successful student, as well as how it helps all students have access to a rigorous education and strong preparation for college.”

Santos’ authenticity and passion at the conference brought many of the adults in the room to tears. 

“I like to feel genuine, so most often whenever I am talking to a group of people, I just say what comes to mind,” said Santos. “The best part of that entire experience was talking to teachers and hearing they cared what the students had to say. So often students think teachers don’t care about their opinions, but it is the exact opposite.”

That caring attitude among teachers is nothing new to Santos, as he has long been a part of the OCS “family.” He believes that because his teachers presented him with incredible opportunities and support, OCS created the person he is today. 

“I wouldn’t trade coming to this school for anywhere else,” he said. “The staff here are inspirational and extremely caring. I want to become a math teacher because of them. I would not be nearly as successful without OCS.” 

A career in teaching math satisfies Santos’ love of calculus as well as his drive to mentor and inspire other underrepresented students – instilling them with the quality of perseverance that his own OCS teachers gave him. 

“I want to help solve the problem of education inequality for low-income populations,” said Santos. “It is very important to me because I know that with education comes the ability to make a change in the world. Giving someone the ability and opportunity to move forward, even one person, would make all my efforts worthwhile.” 

To find out more about the programs of which Santos has been a part,  go to ofarrellschool.org.