This past summer, American University’s Latino Alumni Alliance (LAA) selected international relations major Karla Santillan, SIS/BA ’22, as its 2021 Latino Alumni Alliance Book Award winner. With coordination from the AU Center for Diversity and Inclusion, the award recognizes recipients for their accomplishments and helps them purchase books for their classes throughout the academic year. Recipients are eligible to continue to receive the award each year until graduation, assuming they maintain good academic standing.
“Receiving this award means a lot,” says Santillan. “I think AU does a lot for students who may not have access to different resources.”
The LAA established the award through grassroots-style fundraising efforts. Together with Change Can’t Wait: The Campaign for American University, the LAA Book Award and other alumni-funded awards help promote a diverse and inclusive environment.
"We are very proud that the Latino Alumni Alliance Book Award has an immediate impact on students like Karla,” says Diana Alonzo Watkins, SIS/MA '04, Chair of the LAA. “Supporting students with diverse experiences and immigrant backgrounds, while in school, is a meaningful way for LAA to stay connected with AU. Supporting the next generation of Latinx lideres is one of our AU Challenge Accepted commitments.”
Santillan says the award is meaningful coming from the LAA.
“They provide a community of people that know what you are going through and can comprehend it because they have been through it themselves,” she explains. “It means a lot that alumni are trying to make sure things are even better for the next generation and want to help.”
Growing up in a small town outside of Reading, Pennsylvania, Santillan knew that she was interested in exploring the wider world. As the daughter of Ecuadorian immigrants, she also learned the value of a strong work ethic.
“My parents are very hardworking people,” Santillan says. “They sacrificed everything for my brother and me to have a better life.”
Santillan puts that work ethic into practice every day, between her studies, participating in the School of Public Affairs Leadership Program, working at AU’s library, and interning in the office of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Her family’s experience navigating immigration and the naturalization process guides Santillan’s goals and aspirations today.
“I’m very passionate about reforming the naturalization process. I’ve been studying it, and I’ve seen how many gaps exist because of changes in every political administration. I saw what my parents had to go through in this process. It changed our entire lives, not only financially, but in what my parents were able to access.”
In the future, she plans to attend law school and practice immigration law, possibly at her own firm one day. Nominated for a Truman Scholarship—a premier graduate fellowship for students pursuing careers as public service leaders—she’s considering attending AU’s Washington College of Law.
“I’ve already worked with people there for some of my projects, and they have been wonderful,” she says. “They’ve all been willing to help me even though they’re working on high-profile immigration cases.”
For Santillan, this aspect of the AU community has been a constant.
“AU is a great environment,” she says. “My professors here have been so kind, so willing to help. I’ve never had a professor turn me down for anything I wanted to do outside of the classroom.”
Santillan says there are people throughout her AU experience—professors, staff, the LAA, friends, and more—who have touched her life. For example, when her mother lost her job during the COVID-19 pandemic, the library staff supported Santillan taking on more hours (remotely), and she was able to help her parents pay for groceries.
“I am grateful to have such a wonderful support system here,” she says.
Join the Change Can’t Wait campaign by supporting the LAA Book Award: