Two scholarships have empowered one dedicated student to realize her girlhood goal of working in medicine. For as long as she can remember, medical assistant student Brenda Santiago-Vazquez has wanted to heal others. She recalls giving her brothers imaginary injections and pretending to fasten blood pressure cuffs onto their arms. Although college’s expense once made her cherished ambition seem out of reach, Santiago-Vazquez’s drive and intelligence earned her the financial support she needs to complete her studies with flying colors. 

Brenda Santiago-Vazquez/Photos by Randy Monceaux

Santiago-Vazquez earned funding from the Blanca Class Smith scholarship, established to commemorate a former Northampton Community College counselor and leader in the local Hispanic community. She also garnered support from a scholarship in memory of Lehigh Valley philanthropists Donald B. and Dorothy L. Stabler. Santiago-Vazquez feels deeply grateful for the assistance that is equipping her to cure patients.  

“When you go to the ER, you come in feeling sick and you walk out feeling better. That’s what I want to do,” said Santiago-Vazquez, who plans to work as a pediatric medical assistant for a few years after graduating in August 2021. After gaining work experience, she hopes to study nursing at Moravian College in Bethlehem. She would like to specialize in neonatal care. 

Earning her current 3.6 GPA required Santiago-Vazquez to overcome more than financial obstacles. She had to balance demanding schoolwork with the parenting responsibilities she shares with her fiancé, Jonuel Sanchez. When her daughter, Aubriana Sanchez, 2, struggled to adjust to daycare, Santiago-Vazquez met frequently with the child’s teacher to ease the transition, said Betsy Greer, student facilitator for the Keystone Education Yields Success (KEYS) program, in which Santiago-Vazquez participates. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Santiago-Vazquez’s son, Yanxiel Sanchez, 9, to adapt to online schooling, she structured his study time and helped him with his work.  

Santiago-Vazquez became a mother at 16 and left high school to work and care for Yanxiel. After giving birth two years ago to Aubriana, she suffered from post-partum depression for almost a year.  During the depressive episode, Santiago-Vazquez realized she wanted to provide her children with a role model who demonstrated more career direction and financial stability than she had known as a child. 

“I’m repeating my parents’ life’ and that’s not what I wanted,” Santiago-Vazquez said she told herself at the time. Santiago-Vazquez’s father finished high school and worked in construction. Her mother left school before earning a diploma. Santiago-Vazquez previously worked as a sales manager for a furniture store. 

“She has a strong but gentle presence that I think would instill confidence in her patients that she will provide excellent care.”

-KEYS Facilitator Betsy Greer

To set an example for her children, Santiago-Vazquez completed a one-year GED program in just three months, before enrolling in Northampton Community College in 2019. Santiago-Vazquez found it daunting to re-enter the classroom for the first time since she left high school in 2012. She learned to write papers in Modern Language Association (MLA) style and burnished her rusty math skills. She memorized numerous medical terms by listening repeatedly to recordings of herself saying the words and definitions.  Santiago-Vazquez’s self-motivation helped her fill gaps in her mathematical knowledge and solve challenging problems, said Deanna Hammarsten, assistant professor of mathematics, who taught her.  Santiago-Vazquez’s Spanish fluency sometimes influenced her English writing, but she revised diligently and demonstrated deep linguistic intelligence, said Dawn Moore, adjunct English professor, who taught her. 

“She has this ability to understand the meaning behind the meaning and the answer behind the answer,” Moore said. 

In addition to relying on supportive professors, Santiago-Vazquez turned to KEYS staff members for help with paying for childcare and transportation. The KEYS partnership between the state Department of Human Services and the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges makes education accessible for students receiving federal financial support. KEYS Student Facilitator Betsy Greer expects Santiago-Vazquez to excel as a medical assistant and later a nurse.  

“She has a strong but gentle presence that I think would instill confidence in her patients that she will provide excellent care,” Greer said. 

Brenda Santiago-Vazquez/Photos by Randy Monceaux