Long road to college graduation for CSUSB student

     

Kevin Santos vaguely recalls being extricated with the Jaws of Life from his mangled vehicle that summer day in 2004.  As he clung to life, drifting in and out of consciousness, his main concern was, “Will I be able to pursue my college dream?”

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CSUSB President Tomás Morales (l) congratulates Kevin Santos during the Dec. 8 Commencement ceremony at Coussoulis Arena. Photo: Robert A. Whitehead

After eight long years, he has an answer. On Saturday, Dec. 8, Santos will walk across the stage at Cal State San Bernardino’s Coussoulis Arena to receive his long-awaited bachelor’s degree in English – creative writing track, after years of coping with the challenges caused by traumatic brain injury.

There will be two separate commencement ceremonies: the morning event scheduled for 8:45 a.m. will include CSUSB’s College of Business and Public Administration and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. The afternoon ceremony at 1:45 p.m. will include the College of Arts and Letters, the College of Education and the College of Natural Sciences.

Santos had always believed in setting goals and making a plan to achieve them. And he felt tremendous satisfaction when he succeeded.  But the horrific car accident caused by a reckless driver left him on the brink of death, shattering his dreams of both law school and a law career.

The prognosis was bleak: upon arrival at the hospital, doctors told Kevin’s parents he was not going to make it; but he hung on. He couldn’t move or talk, his brain began to bleed and swell, and he slipped into a coma.

Doctors were not optimistic that Santos would emerge from it.

But two and-a-half months later, he began to show signs of proving them wrong again. Even so, doctors didn’t think a full recovery was likely.

They told his parents, “don’t get your hopes up,” and predicted Santos would be mentally disabled for the rest of his life — but he proved them wrong yet again.

“You can never give up hope; you can never give up trying because once you do, what do you have to strive for?” said his mother, Cathy Santos.

Through his determination and fighting spirit, and long hard hours of rehabilitation therapy, Kevin made a remarkable comeback.

“Kevin’s recovery is miraculous,” said Cathy Santos. “Not many people who have gone through severe traumatic brain injury can accomplish the goals that he has. We are truly blessed.”

Kevin Santos

Kevin Santos

In January 2005, he returned to Serrano High School in Phelan to complete his senior year. For his senior class project, he told his story to more than 400 students, faculty and staff in the performing arts auditorium, recounting the tragic car accident, which would inhibit his ability to pursue a law career.

He shared the consequences of severe traumatic brain injury and his determination to overcome the challenges he would face. Through a PowerPoint presentation of photos taken at the car accident, Santos wanted to help his classmates understand the significance of his recovery.

Although short-term memory is still impaired, sticky notes help a lot, he says. Now he has to try the hardest “just to accomplish what used to be simple.”

Prior to the car accident, Santos had already been accepted to three University of California campuses: San Diego, Santa Cruz and Riverside. After high school graduation, he began the fall semester at UC San Diego.

However, several days into classes, he suffered a debilitating headache, one unlike any other before. That’s when Santos realized that now more than ever, he needed to be closer to home, where he could count on the support of his family.

Back in Pinion Hills, Santos worried about wasting any more precious time. So he enrolled in an on-line course at Victor Valley College, where he could participate from home under the watchful eye of his parents.

“It was a sad, sad time for me,” said Santos. “The reality that I could not be far away from home to attend college, the realization that I would never be able to practice law in a courtroom was extremely disappointing and depressing.”

Starting with just one course per semester, he slowly increased the number of classes each term, adding a second class and then a third. He graduated from Victor Valley College in June 2010 with an associate degree in liberal arts. That fall, he transferred to Cal State San Bernardino and took up residence in the dorms.

Plagued by recurring seizures that render him unable to drive, make reading tedious and performing other cognitive functions much more difficult, it took Santos more than two years to complete his studies at CSUSB.

“This is remarkable,” said Cathy Santos, “considering the enormous amount of time it takes Kevin to read, write and focus on assignments. Homework that takes three hours for an average student can take Kevin 30 hours to complete.”

But Santos will not let his disability interfere with his plans for the future. He now focuses his energy on writing and hopes to become an author of children’s books.

Of all his CSUSB professors, Santos credits his English professor, Jim Brown, with reaffirming his decision to become a writer. He said he liked Brown’s teaching style, but most of all, enjoyed the storytelling of Brown’s personal struggles in overcoming alcoholism.

Eventually, Santos’ long-term goal is to open a summer camp for children with traumatic brain injuries or other neurological disorders. “After all,” said Santos, “who better than one who has coped with the after-effects of this disorder to help others survive similar tragedies?” He has even picked out the name of the organization, “Kevin’s Kamp,” and has already drafted its logo.

Despite the challenges he overcame and those that are ahead, Santos is optimistic of his future. “I know I’m going to be successful in life,” Santos said. “You can’t appreciate success until you’ve experienced failure.”

Visit the CSUSB Commencement website for more information about this weekend’s commencement ceremonies.

For a digital photo of Kevin Santos, or for more information about Cal State San Bernardino, contact the university’s Office of Public Affairs at (909) 537-5007 and visit news.csusb.edu.