First-Generation Student Diddiery Santana Finds Purpose and Passion at CU Denver

May 9, 2023

The Santanas immigrated from Mexico to Parker, Colorado, so that their children could have a better future. Today, the couple’s restaurant southeast of Denver is adorned with gold tassels, congratulatory signs, and photos of their eldest daughter, Diddiery (Diddy) Santana, who will be the first in her family to earn a college degree at CU Denver’s Spring Commencement on May 13. “My parents came here with nothing,” Santana said. “This moment means so much to me.” 

Santana, who will receive a bachelor’s degree in communications and a minor in psychology from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS), knows a thing or two about working hard. For all four years at CU Denver, she took a full course load while working part-time jobs at Lifetime Fitness and a dentist office. And for the last two years, she took on an additional student worker position as a content writer in the University Communications office. She wrote several stories for her fellow students on everything from females in leadership to the best ice cream shops in Denver.  

Her determination and commitment, in part, comes from growing up in her parent’s restaurant in Aurora, called Tortisimas, and seeing her extended family members in Mexico successfully run businesses, which include coffee shops and bakeries. “My family is as a source of strength and inspiration that has helped me stay on my path to completing my bachelor’s degree,” Santana said, adding, “I’ve never seen my life without school, or this idea of doing more and being more.” 

During her first year at CU Denver, Santana made it her mission to take advantage of every opportunity she could. She commuted from Parker and enjoyed exploring the downtown Denver campus. “My friends and I would go to every event—I think we stayed on campus from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day,” Santana said. She also immersed herself in the first-generation community and joined the Latinx Student Alliance and other committees dedicated to student inclusivity and well-being.  

That mindset inspired her thesis project, which explored the resources and opportunities available on campus for first-generation students. She discovered that stigmas can often impede first-generation students from seeking help and found that more can and should be done to support these students. “Being a first-generation student can be overwhelming, and the added pressure to succeed can take a toll on your mental health,” Santana said. “I hope this work sheds light on this important issue and advocates for more resources and support for students like me.”  

Her thesis caught the attention of her professor, Stephen Hartnett, who awarded Santana the COMM Strong Spirit Award for her commitment to and passion for her studies. She was also inducted into the Lambda Pi Eta Honor Society. And, during her senior year, she was asked to be the student representative on the university’s 50th Anniversary Committee, which helped plan communications and celebrations related to CU Denver’s golden birthday. “It was a community-building experience, and I enjoyed meeting alumni and other members from the CU Denver community,” Santana said.  

While at CU Denver, Santana also nurtured her love for travel. She spent a summer in Spain, where she interned for the Madrid Institute of Film and helped write reviews on new movies. And she often traveled to Mexico to spend time with her beloved extended family. After commencement, she will spend three weeks in Europe with her mom and grandma before she applies to a graduate program at CU Denver. She wants to earn her master’s degree in communications and someday teach at a place like CU Denver. “I came here to connect with my community while going to college,” Santana said. “Someday, I would love to be a professor who other first-generation students can look up to.”