Edwin Santos, SPA/BA ’24, MPA ’25, had a hunch about the identity of the special guest expected to join the Zoom meeting announcing the recipients of the inaugural Voyager Scholarship, sponsored by the Obama Foundation and Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky.
Even still, Santos, a second-year legal studies major who’s also working towards a master’s degree in public administration, was shocked to see former President Barack Obama appear on his screen.
“I want you—once you get off the Zoom—to call up your mom or your dad or grandparents and let them know that Obama said, ‘They done good,’” he told the awardees on September 13. “They deserve a lot of credit for how far you’ve already come and how far I’m confident you’ll go.”
Obama’s words hit home for Santos, a first-generation student whose family has inspired his journey, which will now include substantial funding as a Obama-Chesky Scholar for Public Service.
“I kind of teared up listening to [Obama] talk about family,” said Santos, who heard about the program and received feedback from the AU Office of Merit Awards. “Travel has always been a financial burden for my family. Until this summer, my family hadn’t even been back to El Salvador since they came to America more than 30 years ago. I got to see the country they are from, where they grew up. My dad didn’t finish high school and he made sacrifices for me. And now I’m earning this [award] from the [former] president. It’s emotional.”
Edwin Santos, left, and his parents Claudia and Samuel Santos.
The scholarship provides up to $50,000 in financial aid for the final two years of college for students who want to pursue a career in public service. The Obama Foundation administers the scholarship, to which Chesky contributed $100 million. The inaugural cohort includes 100 students representing 35 states and territories and 70 colleges and universities.
Santos is only a second-year student, but because his Politics, Policy, and Law Scholars program is a three-year program, the funds will essentially cover his remaining financial obligations.
The scholarship includes a $10,000 stipend and Airbnb credits for a “summer voyage” anywhere in the world for work focused on public service. Recipients also receive a $2,000 annual travel stipend in Airbnb credits for the 10 years following graduation. Students will get to meet Obama and Chesky at a fall summit.
“Michelle and I know that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to create it,” Obama said. “These young Voyagers believe in a fairer and more inclusive world, and they’re ready to help us address important challenges in new ways. I can’t wait to see what they accomplish through public service.”
Family also inspired Santos’ interest in the legal system. As a 12-year-old, Santos—who grew up outside DC in suburban Woodbridge, Virginia—and his family attended court hearings to support an aunt who was in a custody battle. “My aunt didn’t have the financial resources to hire a good lawyer,” he said.
The experience sparked Santos’ interest in the justice system. He interned last summer with CAIR Coalition, a DC nonprofit that works with immigrants facing deportation, and aspires to start a law firm that focuses on both criminal and immigration law.
Santos wrote in his application that he wants to study recidivism in Norway, which has one of the lowest rates in the world. But he now plans to travel across Europe during his summer voyage, working with nonprofits on prison reform.
“I’m excited to visit other countries, see the world, and learn,” Santos said. “And thanks to this program, I can take that knowledge and use it to help low-income communities.”
President and Mrs. Obama and Brian Chesky, Airbnb co-founder and CEO, announce their inaugural cohort of Voyager Scholarship recipients, 100 rising college juniors who plan to pursue a career in public service.