Isela Santana and the Merritt Community

Image by (Leticia Luna/The Citizen)

April 19, 2021

By Gabe Johnson, Staff Writer

It takes a committed educator to ensure that community college students develop the tools needed to recognize their potential and reach their higher education goals. Isela Santana has acted as a bridge for students to guide them from community college to university, with the use of a powerful pedagogical system.

Merritt College English Instructor Isela Gonzalez Santana was born and raised in San Francisco, California. She grew up and went to school (elementary through high school) in the Mission District. After graduating high school, Santana moved across the Bay to attend UC Berkeley, where she completed her undergraduate studies in English. The youngest of six siblings and born to Mexican immigrant parents, Santana was the first and only one in her family to go to college and graduate from a four-year university. Going to school in the 1970’s, neither she nor her siblings were encouraged to further their education after high school. What’s more, they were directed by the educational system to become blue-collar workers. 

“Even at my private Catholic high school–which was mostly Latinas and Filipinas–they focused on preparing us to become receptionists or secretaries, and maybe go to city college for short-term careers, but not a university,” Santana recalled. 

Seeing how exhausted her siblings were each day after working hard-labor jobs, she realized she wanted more for herself. With a strong interest in education and English, and a group of peers that urged her to apply, Santana decided to prove to herself and others that she could go to college. Santana began tutoring at the age of 15, a practice that led her to UC Berkeley’s ESOL program. The ESOL director at the time saw the teaching potential in her, who mentored and guided Santana throughout her Berkeley years and beyond graduation in the process of applying to Harvard, where Santana earned her masters in Education. 

“I had this English degree background,” Santana said, “But I think that learning about education and issues surrounding how we teach people gravitated me towards learning how to be a good, relevant teacher.” 

Alba Lopez (left) holding Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa and Isela Santana (right) with Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario. Santana uses the books in her teaching. (Photo by Brisa Santana)

Santana is currently Director of the Learning Center at Merritt College, where she is also an English instructor and co-coordinator of the Puente Program, whose objective is to help students transfer from community college to four-year universities while also giving back to the community. Santana stated that the program uses a culturally relevant pedagogical approach to teaching, and being that the majority of students in the program are LatinX, many of the books and articles being discussed are about LatinX issues and/or are written by LatinX authors and researchers. This cultural focus, combined with an ongoing validating and emotional support system, makes the program successful and incentivizes students to continue attending. 

Laura I. Rendón, a professor at the University of Texas researched the Puente program and found that the validation system has boosted the number of students transferring from community college to four-year universities, and highly improved their preparedness in university-level reading and writing.  

 One former Merritt student and instructional assistant, Alba, described Santana’s teaching approach as very committed, caring and mindful of her students. “She’s very supportive, keeps a strong student/professor relationship, and her methods rub off on her students and Puentistas,” Alba said. Having known Professor Santana for ten years, Alba revered that she has a very familia approach; makes students feel very comfortable and creates a safe, warm learning environment for them. 

“She’s a force, and has a very motherly spirit,” said Alba. 

Dr. Chriss Foster, English Chair at Merritt College, also spoke highly of Santana’s pedagogical methods. She described Santana’s work at Merritt as instrumental to both staff and students, and merited her achievements for her preparedness and experience in education. Serving as co-chair of Merritt’s English department alongside Dr. Foster, they collaboratively introduced new concepts to Merritt’s tutor training program, worked on student outcome transformation grants and served on hiring and tenure-review committees, amongst various other projects. 

“She’s a great person to work with because she always follows through on things,” Foster said. “You give her the task, and it’s gonna be done–you don’t even have to think about it. It may be done sooner than you think.” 

Isela Santana has been an asset to everyone she’s worked with in the Merritt College community. Through progressive, relevant educational practices and a firm belief in success through encouraging and highlighting her students, she has strengthened and reformed the Merritt College learning institution. It was through her early interest in education that she was directed on this academic voyage, guided and uplifted by her mentors. In turn, Santana has earnestly given back a hundred-fold to her students and staff, providing them with new perspectives on learning and helping them sharpen the skills that they will use to change their lives.