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Leyla Santiago brings new perspective, representation to Hussman school

leyla smiling with student.JPG
Photo Courtesy of Jessica F. Simmons.

After 18 years in broadcast journalism — covering topics including Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, the 2020 election and COVID-19 — Leyla Santiago said she was ready for a change.

“If I'm going to step back [from broadcast journalism], how do I spend my time with purpose? I can't think of a better way of doing that than helping to mold the next generation–if they will allow me to help them in that process,” Santiago said.

The journalist joined UNC’s faculty as the inaugural Daniels Executive-in-Residence this fall and currently teaches two classes: Covering and Engaging Latinx Communities and Carolina Week.

Santiago said the Covering and Engaging Latinx Communities class focuses on understanding the communities that journalists are working with and reporting on responsibly. Latinos make up the second largest ethnic group in the United States, and Santiago said journalists need to recognize the group’s complexity. 

“There's so much nuance within those communities that you really should not be calling it the Latino community — you should be calling it Latino communities,” she said. “Because a Puerto Rican is very different from a Mexican is very different from a Venezuelan.”

One of her students, junior Samantha Marles, said she’s never had a professor like Santiago.

She said she connects with Santiago because “she knows she was one of us." Marles also said she hopes the University continues to incorporate professionals of different backgrounds. 

Attending UNC, a predominantly white institution, has been "quite tricky," Marles said. She said there is not enough Latina representation within the journalism industry. 

“I think it's very strongly needed because we are also voices," Marles said. "We also want to be heard. We also deserve to be here and say our opinion without feeling judged." 

Senior Sofia Basurto said she’s also seen a lack of representation in her classes. In every journalism class Basurto has taken, she said she has been one of two Hispanic students.

She echoed Marles’ call for the University to focus on incorporating additional voices into the journalism program.

“Here, it's been more focused on news and technical skills, which makes sense. But again, I think it does lack that push for minority representation, minority stories and the bicultural-ness that we can bring to stories. I think it lacks in numbers and types of classes that are oriented towards this,” Basurto said.

According to UNC Media Relations, there are 46 Hispanic students enrolled in the Hussman School, making up 4.6 percent of the student population. Santiago said when it comes to the experiences of those students, “I know what it’s like.”

“I never had a Latina woman who was sort of a boss — or higher than me — to serve as a role model for me in this industry,” Santiago said.

Santiago said she’s trying to “bridge these gaps” and create a safe space for students to ask questions without judgment.

“I think we have come a long way — we have a long way to go too," she said. "Let's acknowledge progress, but by no means do I think that we're there." 

She said she hopes her presence at UNC, and the classes she's teaching, have a positive impact both her students and their communities.

“We have to have all these voices around the table, but it's up to us to sort of create who's at the table to create that environment,” she said.


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