East New York’s Own Carmen Santiago Launches Dream Career After Second Chance at College

Posted By Samantha Thompson

Carmen Santiago, who earned an Associate of Science (A.S.) degree in Community Health Education in 2023 at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY), had actually started classes at BMCC 20 years earlier.

“I was fresh out of Fiorello LaGuardia High School in Manhattan, and I wanted to go to college but the transition was difficult for me,” she says, adding that she had followed her parents’ advice and majored in computer science, “but it wasn’t me.”Looking back, Santiago appreciates that her parents just wanted her to have a better life than they did.

“My mom was an elementary school teacher in the Dominican Republic,” she says. “My dad was Puerto Rican and had left school in the seventh grade. They met at a factory in Brooklyn, packaging items for a large home supply store.”

During that first foray into a college education, “9/11 happened,” Santiago says. “I stopped attending BMCC altogether and took a 20-year hiatus.”

“Hiatus” sounds like a break, a kind of vacation—but she was actually quite busy, during those 20 years.

For one thing, she started her family with three children now ages 11, 12 and 15. She also earned a Medical Assistant certificate from the New York Medical Career Training Center.

Santiago Gains Valuable Career Experience Before Returning To Academics

The 20 years between first attending college and then returning to school were busy for Santiago.

“Eventually, I became a surgical coordinator,” she says. “I was doing a lot of clinical things that a medical assistant wouldn’t do today but like remove sutures, to give an example, but mostly, as a surgical coordinator I was making sure that patients were ready for surgery; that they understood the process and it was approved by their insurance, things like that.”

During that 20-year period, she also found herself working in medical settings with the backdrop of the Covid pandemic.

“It was scary,” she says. “At the same time, I felt that I was going where I was most needed. I tried to help patients with whatever they needed, whether it was making a phone call or getting additional services.”

As the years passed, Santiago moved to different job sites, including CityMD Urgent Care and Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital.

“Then I decided I wanted to go back to college,” she says.

“I knew if I worked to provide more patient education, I could help out patients in low-income communities who don’t understand their insurance or what doctors are telling them—and I knew I needed a degree to do that.”

In other words, she says, “I wanted to go back to school and finish what I started.”

Enrolling At College A Second Time Means Choosing A Different Major

On her second time around, enrolling at BMCC, Santiago chose Community Health Education as her major.

Professor Lesley Rennis, chair of the Health Studies Department, introduced Santiago to the Public Health Academy at BMCC, and that opened even more doors.

Launched in 2021, the Public Health Academy links Community Health Education and Public Health majors with the public health career sector.

The program also serves as a pipeline into baccalaureate and master’s degree programs at Hunter College, CUNY and Columbia University, as well as providing entry to a variety of public health-related professions.

Santiago is now employed in the Public Health Academy at BMCC, helping current students start their journey to a career in patient care.

She’s also completing a Bachelor’s of Social Work (BSW) at Hunter College and holding a Patient Navigation Internship at Jamaica Hospital in Queens.

Starting Over Is Also About Contributing To A Larger Cause

One skill she’s had all along, and which continues to be a plus in health care settings, is being bilingual.

“I am fluent in Spanish, which I have utilized to my advantage throughout my years in healthcare,” she says. “Even as a child, whenever I went to appointments with my mom, I would help translate for her and more often than not, for the other patients in the waiting room, too.”

“My goal is to reach back out to my community as a clinical social worker in a hospital setting,” she says. “I’d like to do that in East New York, the part of Brooklyn where I grew up and still live.”

Some would say she’s a natural, in the field of patient care. She landed her first job in patient care almost by accident.

“I was waiting for my interview, sitting in the waiting room, and a lady asked me to help her with a form,” Santiago says. “I start helping her with it, and the next thing I know, there’s a line behind her.”

At some point, she says, she looked up and 45 minutes had gone by.

“I think I’ve missed my interview appointment, but as it turns out, the supervisor had been watching me all along,” she says. “When I did finally sit down with her, she started our conversation by saying, ‘You’ve got the job.’”

Looking back on her first enrollment at BMCC, then the 20-year break and returning with more of a sense of purpose, Santiago says, “I wanted to actually feel like I’m contributing to a cause, and now I do feel that. I took a second chance to start over and really focus on what I wanted to do.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *