Rachel Santizo spent nearly a decade living on the streets of Salt Lake City, finding safety from abuse and assault at night by sleeping in public spaces, often under parked cars. A drug addiction, triggered with prescribed pain pills which shifted to meth and heroin, had led her there.
“You have to hit multiple rock bottoms,” she said. “After an almost 10-year battle, I became exhausted. I literally could not do it anymore.”
Last August, Santizo walked on the stage at the Maverik Center, earning her degree in criminal justice with a 3.92 GPA as one of Salt Lake Community College’s 2021 Graduates of Excellence.
Her path to graduation, though, came with numerous obstacles, including a decade of addiction and homelessness. Santizo remembers weighing her options back in 2012.
“It was treatment or suicide, and I didn’t have the courage to commit suicide,” she said. “I was broken and defeated. I had lost everything I loved.”
Santizo decided to seek treatment and detox through the Odyssey House in 2012. In March, she will celebrate 10 years of sobriety.
Santizo, now 43 and living in South Jordan, said she went through a period of feeling judged for her history of substance abuse. “Addiction is very complex and often feared or misunderstood,” she said. “I believe in the power of change. I have to. If not, I wouldn’t be here.”
As she worked on understanding her addiction, Santizo said she realized she could use her experiences to help the community.
“I have a unique view that can bridge gaps that may not otherwise be seen or heard … I want to help people and create change in my community,” Santizo said. “I speak the language and understand the behaviors, so criminal justice was the perfect fit for me.”
The decision to enroll at SLCC, Santizo said, “terrified” her. She said she doubted her ability to succeed, but those feelings dissipated when she started her classes.
“My professors never made me feel less than,” Santizo said. “My biggest struggle was writing papers. I was extremely intimidated. When I expressed any concerns I had, my teachers listened and walked beside me.”
Santizo left a “lasting impression” on her professors, who described her as an engaged learner, community leader and role model.
Adjunct professor Anna West — who teaches the Life, Drugs and Society course at SLCC — said she appreciated the candor and willingness with which Santizo disclosed her past to her classmates.
“She wrote a term paper that was so good, we published it in the Open Catalog of Student Work, and it’s a sample for all students,” West said. In the paper, Santizo compiled research about access to health care for those living with severe substance-use disorder. “It was one of the best papers I have seen at all levels of education,” West said.
Assistant professor David Robles characterized Santizo as a distinguished student who made an immediate impression in his criminal justice course.
“I remember the first day of class, hearing about her past experiences, and truly acknowledging the depth that Rachel was going to bring to the classroom,” Robles said.
Robles said Santizo often led discussions with her peers and always contributed “insightful comments and questions, even when discussing difficult and controversial topics.”
Santizo’s impact on her professors extended beyond the classroom. When West got a chance to teach SLCC courses at the Utah State Prison, she sought advice from Santizo, who had taught and worked in several Utah prisons.
“She built my confidence and told me that I have everything I need to go into the prison, because all the students inside need is patience and kindness,” West said. “I’m grateful that I could ask her, because I was nervous, and she put me at ease."
Robles echoed that sentiment. “Since I practice a pedagogical approach — where both the student learns from the teacher and the teacher learns from the student — Rachel was a student who I learned plenty from,” Robles said.
Graduation and beyond
“Rachel exemplified excellence by completing her degree,” Robles said. “Although this accomplishment may seem simple to others, if you know about Rachel’s life, this was a long and enduring process that challenged her in many ways.”
To Santizo, being named Graduate of Excellence was a “complete honor and mind-blowing.” During SLCC’s commencement ceremony, Santizo walked before thousands of people in the Maverik Center carrying a banner representing the School of Applied Technology and Technical Specialities.
“At one point in my life, I wasn’t sure if I would live to see another day,” Santizo said, remembering the ceremony. “I had never held my head so high. I looked up at my children and in that moment, I knew that all my hard work had paid off — that I was worthy of great things, that I am the woman I had been fighting to be.”
Santizo has returned to Odyssey House, where she went for detox, to take a job as program manager of their residential program. “It is incredible to have the opportunity to give back what has been given to me,” she said.
Santizo also co-hosts a weekly podcast, with veteran Utah TV anchor Randall Carlisle, called “Odyssey House Journals.”
“We speak about recovery and different stories pertaining to substance dependency and alcoholism,” Santizo said. “Every week, I get to hear another story from a hero who had the courage to do something different in their life.”
Santizo works Monday through Friday at the Odyssey House, and noted the importance of keeping a structured schedule. Weekends are reserved for writing letters and sending care packages to her son in the National Guard, sleepovers with her 2-year-old grandson, and doing recovery work at Fit to Recover, where she helps teach a fitness boot camp.
“[Boot camp] is soul food,” she said of the free class, which focuses on offering support to those tackling mental health issues or seeking freedom from alcohol or substances. “We exercise, connect with each other in a non-judgmental way that allows us to come as we are and leave a little bit better each time, together.”
Through adversity, Santizo said she has battled addiction and used her experiences and empathy to help others with similar experiences, but she realizes this is only possible with support from others.
“I am 100% convinced that I cannot do sobriety on my own,” she said. “I need support around to encourage me during times I struggle. I need love when I am not at my best. I need to be OK with not being OK — simply stated, the acceptance of being a human being.”
Santizo began her educational career convinced that graduating from SLCC was an unattainable goal. She has a message for those who feel the same way.
“The deeper your fear or story, the more you have to tell others after you conquer what is in front of you,” Santizo said. “Fear is motivating if you allow it. Education is empowering. You get one life, so in order to fully grasp all there is to know, an education is critical. Everyone is deserving of that.”
Amie Schaeffer wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.
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