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How this woman beat the odds and rose to the top at the Office of the Surgeon General

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Nancy Santiago, deputy director of engagement for America’s chief health educator, shares her journey.
Nancy Santiago is deputy director of engagement at the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General.
Nancy Santiago is deputy director of engagement at the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General.Courtesy of Nancy Santiago.

Nancy Santiago could have turned bitter. Or she could have turned inward, at least. Many would have after being raised by a drug-addicted father who doled out physical and mental abuse, telling her over and over that she would never amount to anything.

Instead, Santiago turned her experience into determination. She turned outward. She turned her life to serving others, including children with trauma. And now she is the new deputy director of engagement at the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General.

“I needed to prove my father wrong,” Santiago told Know Your Value in a recent interview for Hispanic Heritage Month. “That sounds like a terrible reason. But the fact is, it put a fight in me — and I’m always looking for the next fight.”

That spirit has driven Santiago throughout her entire career, from working as a therapist for young people in juvenile detention to serving in policy leadership positions and as vice president of the nonprofit organization Hispanics in Philanthropy. She took her role with the Surgeon General’s Office in September 2021 and is also a Comcast Community Impact Partner.

The through-line in her career, Santiago said, is “always to question the norm. When something isn’t working, even though humans don’t like change, we need to evolve it. It’s all about a laser-like focus on the inequities in the world, and how we align ourselves, the tools, and the capital to fix it.”

Santiago understood inequity from her earliest memories growing up in Philadelphia. Her mother's family, who moved from Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland, had grown up without a father—so she was determined to stay with her husband through the abuse and addiction. Santiago’s grandmother ran a speakeasy in the South Street area to support herself and the other women in the neighborhood, after coming from her home country to America to do farm labor.

Santiago said she took on extra abuse from her father at home to protect her younger brother and sister.

But she went on to receive both a bachelor’s degree in communication and a master’s degree in education from Temple University. Soon after graduate school, she began working with children in the criminal justice system, which she calls “a great challenge but also the most fun I’ve ever had.”

Nancy Santiago with former First Lady Michelle Obama.Courtesy of Nancy Santiago.

It was a crystallizing and formative time, she said. “I realized I had a bigger problem to help solve than just all the trauma they had experienced,” said Santiago. “It was also that the systems didn’t want them there or allow a place for them. Now, we’ve made it so these kids can finish their high school degree. But that wasn’t the case then.”

Santiago learned a lot through her work at the Office of School Management, including how to talk to young people and that children respond to what they hear and see. But what informed the rest of her work was seeing up close “how bad policy makes for bad treatment of the citizenry, while good policy can create systemic change.”

Through her work in the private and public sector, Santiago came to think of herself as a “people collector,” stitching together the right policy brains with philanthropists and executives and whoever is needed to make change happen.

It’s what drew her to the position working with U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. She recounted, for example, a recent visit session he held with eighth graders in Chicago to talk about mental health.

Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy speaks at the White House on July 15, 2021.Susan Walsh / AP

“It’s a whole different set of ideas, as today’s kids are much more open to talk about mental health,” Santiago said. “They say our parents don’t get it — they don’t even know the words for it — because they’re so not used to talking about it. I just love that, because I want to build a better community for kids like me.”

By that, she means not just the girl who had a difficult time at home and at school, but also the Puerto Rican child who loved her heritage yet recognized her country didn’t necessarily feel the same way.

“This isn’t a country where if you’re shy you’ll get change,” she said. “As women, we’re gatherers — which sounds a little sexist, but the fact is that’s how we’re taught and we can use that as a tool to create better outcomes. I will always want to be a part of a tribe of women who get things done. As a woman of color you never ever feel completely like you’re part of this country, to be honest, but you can feel like you’re part of a tribe if you build it.”

Through all of her work so far and in the jobs she will hold in the future, Santiago said, she is focused on building not only tribes but systems that support kids like the one she once was.

“To get to a better, more right place, sometimes you’ve got to build it yourself and that means building in faith,” Santiago said. “We’re good at measuring outputs, like X number of kids graduated from high school through a given program. But what matters is the outcomes. I care what they did with that graduation. We haven’t answered those questions in schools or workplaces or anywhere really, and I want to devote myself to changing that.”

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