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Putting people first

Judith Santano
(Photo courtesy of Judith Santano)

Judith Santano

BS '19
Earth Systems Program

"I am often the only Latina, the only woman, the only first-gen person, one of few students from low-income backgrounds in academic spaces that I occupy,” said Judith Santano, BS ’19. “So when I’m teaching or researching, if I can make someone else feel seen, then that is what makes my work feel really worthwhile.”

While at Stanford, Santano taught at the O'Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm. While many of the students she taught would arrive apprehensive, they’d often leave excited about bugs and soil and farming. Santano attributes this change to the experience of feeling seen while learning in a new environment.

“Many of these kids were Latino kids who primarily spoke Spanish or were ESL learners from lower-income schools near Stanford,” she said. “I could tell it was impactful for them to learn with me because I could say their names correctly and we could communicate in their first language. Interactions like these create positive cycles in the world.”

Santano’s experiences with education – from making connections with young learners to feeling isolated by instruction through a lens of privilege – have fueled her in her academic journey. For Santano’s next step, she’s beginning as a PhD student at Tulane University, where she will study how anthropogenic stressors such as climate change and deforestation impact bird communities in Ecuador.

“Birds are incredible and beautiful, but they’re also really wonderful ambassadors for science education and outreach,” she said. “They’re really visible and everyone already knows something about birds, which makes them a perfect teaching tool.”

For Santano, it always comes back to protecting people, whether it’s by finding ways to accomplish conservation goals in a way that center communities or advocating for other students who feel unrepresented in academia.

“I hold the words of a mentor very close: You may be the first, but you’re not allowed to be the last. So I always try to leave every academic space more welcoming for future generations of people like me.”

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