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Sam Santiago dreamed of becoming a military officer, but he thought the odds were against him

 - A self-portrait from Sam Santiago's senior year at The Citadel.

Hard work and determination have long been the motivating factors for success for recent Citadel graduate Sam Santiago.

Santiago, formerly of Powell Butte, earned a bachelor's degree in science in mechanical engineering and a minor in leadership studies from The Citadel of South Carolina. Santiago graduated during the South Carolina Corps of Cadets virtual commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 9, 2020.

Santiago is a Crook County High School Alumni, and graduated in 2016 from CCHS. He is the son of Gloria and David Santiago. He was active in the CCHS NJROTC program his entire high school career.

Nearly 600 members of the South Carolina Corps of Cadets accepted diplomas during The Citadel's virtual commencement. In addition to graduating, about 30% of the class accepted commissions as U.S. military officers in all branches of service.

Santiago was president of his class for the past three years and spoke at the commencement earlier in May. From a military leadership standpoint, Santiago ranked in the top 25 students in his class and graduated with Gold Stars. Gold Stars are awarded to those students on the Dean's List who have made a grade-point average of 3.70 or higher for the work of a semester.

He addressed the unfortunate occurrence that his class was unable to have a traditional graduation during his virtual speech.

"As a class, we responded in a brave, proud and unyielding manner, without retreat," he said.

He added that although it made it more difficult to finish some of his classes virtually, his teachers held Zoom meetings to keep communication open.

"It's unfortunate that all things kind of stopped — like senior year activities from happening, like graduation," he added.

Santiago indicated that the traditional graduation ceremony is a huge deal at The Citadel, and it was something he was looking forward to. However, he has chosen not to have it be his main focus.

"I certainly didn't go to The Citadel so I could be there for the graduation ceremony," he emphasized. "It was to graduate with those honors that I did just from being there — and that is exactly what I did. That is what I was most excited about, and that it was I came to do and that is what I did."

He added that those who have supported him, and certainly his parents, are proud of him and were able to see his virtual speech at commencement.

The Citadel Class of 2020 was celebrated for their achievements during two virtual commencement ceremonies. Part of the virtual commencement celebrations included creating a webpage for each graduate, where they and their loved ones can share messages. In total, more than 6,000 messages were left on the commencement profile pages.

This year's graduating class for the South Carolina Corps of Cadets included 590 Cadets from 33 states. Approximately 210 cadets are earning commissions in all branches of U.S. Armed Forces to become new officers.

The Citadel campus is located in Charleston, South Carolina, and offers a classic military college education for young men and women focused on leadership excellence and academic distinction. The approximately 2,400 members of the S.C. Corps of Cadets are not required to serve in the military, but about one-third of each class earn commissions to become officers in every branch of U.S. military service.

Citadel alumni have served the nation, their states and their communities as principled leaders since 1842. The Citadel Graduate College, founded more than 50 years ago, offers 26 graduate degree programs, 25 graduate certificate programs and 10 evening undergraduate programs in the evening or online.

The long road to reach his dreams

Although he has encountered many challenges to reach this milestone in his life, Santiago never gave up on the dream to become a military officer.

Santiago was a member of the Crook County High School NJROTC (Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps) program from his freshman through his senior year. He was also in the ROTC program at The Citadel until the end of his junior year.

Donny Jackson, NJROTC instructor for CCHS, first became acquainted with Santiago his senior year. He had Santiago in his program his senior year through graduation. Jackson indicated that he was always involved in sports and helped with the freshman NJROTC recruits.

"Can't" was never a word he would use; he would always figure out a way to make things happen and would keep his grades up. He had an extremely good work ethic," commented Jackson of Santiago.

Jackson explained that Sandy and Rich Priday of Prineville have hired several of his students throughout the years because of their good work ethics. The Pridays own the local Best Western, as well as the Inn at Cross Keys Station in Madras. He recommended Santiago when the Pridays needed some extra help.

"The biggest thing with (Santiago) was he was very responsible, very respectful and always set an example," added Jackson. "He would not be afraid to give his shirt off his back if somebody needed it more than him."

Santiago expressed his gratitude to the Pridays for the opportunity to work for them through summers and the holidays from college.

"I started out just working at his house, and then I moved up to working at the motels doing things here and there … Rich and Sandy have always been about taking care of their employees 100%," Santiago said.

Upon graduation from high school, Santiago had plans to join the Air Force, He even filled out the paperwork, but his future had other plans. With the encouragement of Jackson and Priday, he began to consider college. Rich Priday is an alumnus of The Citadel in South Carolina and encouraged Santiago to consider the school as an option. His ultimate goal was to be an officer in the Air Force.

"The last week or two weeks of my senior year (of high school), I was really questioning whether or not that was the right path to go," he said of his plans to enlist in the U.S. Air Force.

After applying for The Citadel, he waited a week before he received the news he had been accepted. The day after he got the acceptance news from The Citadel, he also received the news that his number one option in the U.S. Air Force had become available.

"I had two good options right there. I could have my number one job in the Air Force and go in enlisted — or go to the school."

Santiago did his due diligence to find scholarships and ways to afford his tuition. Despite some success in obtaining a few scholarships, this school seemed out of his reach — even though it was his first choice. When Rich Priday became aware of his dilemma, he offered to have Santiago continue working for him on his breaks from school in exchange for assistance with tuition for The Citadel, which he did for the next four years before his college graduation.

"I would come home in the wintertime for Christmas break and I would have a couple months over summer," said Santiago. "Every time I would come back, I would work for him and do whatever he wanted me to do. He continued to support me. I scrounged up some more scholarship money along the way."

"He is a great young man, and he is going return what we did many times over for some other people, I am sure," noted Priday.

Choosing the U.S. Coast Guard

Santiago found out that the Air Force ROTC program his junior year was not the route he wanted to go. He changed to the U.S. Coast Guard and finished his senior year at The Citadel. In December of 2019 he received the news that he had been accepted into Coast Guard Officer Candidate School (OCS). In July, he will be on the last leg of his training to become an officer — his dream since he was a young man.

"I don't know where I will be or what I will be doing yet," Santiago said.

He indicated that the training school is in Connecticut at the Coast Guard Academy and is approximately 17 weeks along. At the end of the training, he will graduate as an officer. He added that the U.S. Coast Guard does not have an ROTC Program, so he couldn't graduate as an officer from The Citadel. Therefore, he needed the additional training from the Coast Guard Academy.

Santiago always gives credit to those who have supported him, including Crook County High School instructors Jackson and Ernie Brooks, and he is especially grateful to his parents and to the Pridays.

"I think they are just very proud of how far I have gone," he said of his parents. "I definitely owe it to them for getting to where I am today. Without their support along the way, none of it would have been possible."

"I know they are all proud of me," he concluded. "To me that is all that matters — to graduate and know that I worked my hardest, and to see that I made Rich and Sandy proud."

Santiago graduated from The Citadel with a Bachelor's in Science in mechanical engineering and a minor in leadership studies. He will attend the Coast Guard Officer Candidate School the end of July 2020 and will graduate as an Officer in December 2022.

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