What are the odds that the first Latino director of the United States Census Bureau attended Trinity University? Don’t worry, there’s an easy answer.
Robert L. Santos ’76, a product of San Antonio’s Holy Cross High School, graduated from Trinity with a degree in mathematics. More than 40 years later, President Joe Biden nominated him to lead the country’s largest statistical agency.
However, the path for Santos didn’t come with a tested formula. With every step, he’s broken barriers and overcome obstacles, and that all began on San Antonio’s west side.
An Unconventional Path
Santos gave football a shot in school, but he didn’t even get to wear a jersey or play a down. As he realized sports weren’t working out, he turned his attention elsewhere.
“At Holy Cross, I found and developed a love for mathematics,” Santos says. “I ended up being pretty good at it.”
Santos earned a math medal and graduated near the top of his class. Those pieces would seemingly add up to a guaranteed trip to college, but he didn’t realize he had to take several earlier strides to continue his education.
“I was kind of shy, so I didn’t like meeting people, so I never met with the college counselor in high school. I figured I could graduate high school in May, look at colleges in June and July, apply, and then go to school at the college of my choice in September,” Santos says.
As he soon learned, things don’t work that way, so Santos ended up enrolling at San Antonio College. That was where a calculus teacher noticed how much he was loving his work in the class.
“She said, ‘Why don’t you apply to other schools and transfer,’ and I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ But then my aunt had a neighbor who knew somebody at Trinity,” Santos says.
This person, who Santos believes was the dean of students at the time, agreed to meet with him. Santos put on his nicest jeans and t-shirt for the important encounter. The conversation, which lasted an hour, ended up being the push he needed to become a Tiger.
“She somehow got me to start talking, and we had this really interesting conversation about life and where the country was going, and I got really inspired,” Santos says. “She said, ‘If you apply, I’ll get you in.’”
Well, Santos applied, and he got in. He began his time at Trinity in January 1973.
“I couldn’t believe it. I was just ecstatic,” Santos says.
According to Santos, he couldn’t afford to live in a residence hall at the time. Instead, he chose to drive back and forth from home and class. This already made his time at Trinity different from that of other students. Then Santos’ sister introduced him to a girl from Houston in March of his first semester, a girl he ended up marrying just five months later.
“My second semester at Trinity, I was a married college student, so I had a really unconventional time at Trinity, but it was amazing nonetheless,” Santos says. “And by the way, we’re still married in year 49.”
Living off-campus as a married man prevented Santos from making many friends at school. That didn’t bother him, however, because he was getting to focus on math. He remembers taking nearly double the credit hours required for his major, trying out independent study classes, and loving courses such as formal logic in which he could do his beloved proofs.
“I remember all of the teachers seemed to be devoted to the mission of teaching and getting students to think differently about life and the particular subject matter,” he says.
As much as he loved math, Santos also enjoyed taking classes in fields such as environmental science and art history. He appreciates that he could learn important lessons regardless of the subject.
“The professors challenged you in a liberal arts context,” Santos says. “It didn't matter what course I took, the professors would challenge you to be a critical thinker… to use and apply critical thinking and some creativity to end up creating deeper insights into whatever it was you were studying. That's what I valued the most about my education at Trinity.”
Still, Santos couldn’t shake his passion for math. After graduating in 1976, he took the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and racked up a high score in the math section. This led him to believe he could attend graduate school to fulfill his dream of becoming a math professor until one of his Trinity professors urged him to reconsider.
“My math professor, his name was Darwin Peek… he was really, really passionate about math,” Santos says. “I walked in there and he said, ‘Alright, what are you going to do with grad school?,’ and I said, ‘I want to be a math professor.’ He said, ‘Son, you just don’t have it. It’s really hard to become a math professor in the United States.’”
Santos was stunned. He did well in his GRE, and he loved the subject, so he didn’t quite understand the pushback from Peek. But as Peek kept talking, things made a bit more sense.
“[Peek] said, ‘You know you like math. This is great, but go into statistics and you can have your pick of jobs. You’ll be always employable.’”
Taking this advice into account, Santos applied to various programs. The University of Michigan offered him a fellowship, so three months after graduating from Trinity, Santos moved with his wife, Adella, to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and became a Wolverine.
“I was in heaven because the statistics department had only six years before broken off from the math department. All of my courses were these really high-powered, high-level mathematics courses that happened to have some statistics,” Santos said.
Basically, Santos was still getting to do the proofs he loved, with a touch of statistics. But then, something changed.
“I accidentally got thrown into survey research, applied mathematics, and statistics, and [I] became a sampling statistician. That's basically how I built my career, through survey sampling and through conducting survey research and methodology,” Santos says.
So despite some initial hesitancy, Santos really did end up taking Peek’s suggested route. He completed his master’s degree in statistics at Michigan and then accepted a role as senior study director and sampling statistician at Temple University. A few years later, Santos returned to Michigan to serve as the director of survey operations for the university’s Institute for Social Research.
Most recently, Santos took over as president of the American Statistical Association. His term came to an end when the United States Senate confirmed him to become the 26th director of the U.S Census Bureau in November 2021. His appointment by Biden and eventual confirmation made Santos not only the first Latino to lead the agency, but also the first person of color to hold the position permanently.
It is a distinction he takes pride in, but it wasn’t always easy for him to accept what made him unique.
“I had big-time impostor syndrome. I was this barrio kid coming in… every time I got a job, I was like… ‘Oh, they're gonna find out immediately that I really don't know what I'm doing.’ I would always worry that somehow something was going to fall apart,” Santos says.
It took Santos more than a decade in the workforce to realize that he had everything he needed already within him, including his heritage.
“Being Latino to me is a critical component of who I am and I take to heart the values that it taught me. The traditions, the culture, the music, everything—it's part of me, and it allows me to be better at whatever I do,” he says.
Santos now makes a concerted effort to help those around him value their backgrounds as well.
“The first thing I tell all of the Census staff is that you need to bring your whole self to the table. You need to bring your culture, your perspectives, your life experiences,” Santos says. “If you do that, you're bringing your whole toolbox together.”
Influencing a New Generation of Tigers
Santos is now nearly a year into his five-year term in charge of the Census Bureau. He’s getting to lead the review of the most recent census that took place during the COVID-19 pandemic even though he did not run the census at the time. He is also preparing his agency for the next census that begins at the end of the decade.
No one, not even Santos, could have predicted how difficult the 2020 census would turn out to be. At Trinity, Jamie Thompson ’05, Ed.D., assistant dean of students, helped form the Trinity 2020 Census & Voter Engagement Task Force ahead of the big year. She and former Trinity employee Scott Brown realized that there needed to be efforts to address the upcoming census and election on campus.
“This is a population that knows very little about the topic. They have not had the opportunity to engage in this civic-centered activity before this point in their lives,” Thompson says.
The task force created a library display, coordinated with Residential Life, and utilized the megaphone of campus student organizations such as Student Government Association. Their work resulted in Trinity receiving a 2021 Gold Seal award for nonpartisan student voter participation, and it all began with a desire to educate about the census.
“Our efforts were successful in raising awareness about the importance of a census [in terms of] what it is and why one should participate, and we supported skill development in how to complete a census form, [which] will come in handy in another 10 years,” Thompson says.
Santos learned about these steps taken by his alma mater to inform students about the census, and he was ecstatic.
“When I heard that Trinity has this program, it just kind of made my heart shine,” Santos said. “Our U.S. Constitution says every 10 years you must take a census, and I'm just so proud to be a part of the organization that is responsible for preserving and promoting our democracy in that fashion. Having Trinity be a part of the civic engagement for the 2020 census is just amazing, because that means that Trinity is also participating in our democracy and making our country better.”
As Trinity strives to continue influencing the next generation of leaders, Santos serves as a beacon for what Tigers can accomplish.
“It was pretty transformational,” Santos says about his education at Trinity. “What those professors did had a profound impact on my life.”
Going from a “barrio kid” on the west side of San Antonio, to leading the U.S. Census Bureau, Santos has proven that no odds are too long.