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Farmhand to Public Servant

January 2021

Filipino man wearing graduation gown

Last spring, as COVID-19 surged and BYU–Hawaii had to close its campus, IWORK student Karl Santiago had to hastily leave Hawaii with his wife, Tatjana, and their one-year-old daughter. They considered returning home to the Philippines, but they feared that their country’s strict quarantine protocols for international travelers would be too hard on their daughter.

Fortunately for Karl and his family, they had the option of staying with relatives in Virginia and Utah, where Karl continued his education remotely. But in addition to dealing with the challenges of online learning, Karl also missed out on two would-be highpoints of his final year in college: a practicum in Washington, DC, and a research conference in Chicago.

One positive from the experience was that it helped Karl fully appreciate “how much BYU–Hawaii professors really care for their students,” he says. “They were really supportive and willing to help me.” With that support—and a healthy amount of grit—Karl finished strong and graduated magna cum laude with a degree in political science and a certificate in legal studies.

“You never know how much change you bring to students’ lives because of your support.”

Karl is no stranger to overcoming challenges when it comes to getting an education. Growing up, his parents couldn’t afford much beyond putting food on the table. So at the age of 10, Karl began working on farms for $3 a day to earn money for school supplies.

Filipino man standing in front of the Hawaii State LegislatureAfter graduating from BYU–Hawaii, Karl was accepted to work as a clerk for the Senate Committee on Human Services of the Hawaii State Legislature. “It’s amazing,” he says of BYU–Hawaii. “It changed my life. I really appreciate donations to the IWORK program. Without them I wouldn’t be here working for the state legislature—a job that I never dreamed of having and that is opening a lot of opportunities for me.”

When Karl was accepted to BYU–Hawaii, it was the donor-funded IWORK program that made it possible for him to attend. But first he had to get to Hawaii, which required visa and international processing fees, airfare, and other expenses. To pay for those, Karl’s parents sold their house and their land. “In the Philippines, parents tend to sacrifice for the eldest,” Karl explains. “You’re like the investment of the family. Your parents send you to school, where they want you to study hard so that when you graduate, you will get a good job and help your siblings study and get good jobs. You basically become the breadwinner.”

As his parents had hoped, Karl studied hard, graduated, and now has a job with the Hawaii State Legislature as a clerk for the Senate Committee on Human Services. “I’m pretty excited,” he says. “I really like working in government.” In the future, Karl plans to earn an MPA and pursue a career as a public servant back home in the Philippines.

Karl says to donors who support the IWORK program, “I’m really grateful that you know the need for international students like me to get a quality education. Without you, I wouldn’t be here working for the state legislature—a job that I dreamed of having and that is opening a lot of opportunities for me. You never know how much change you bring to students’ lives because of your support.”