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A Latina Champion

Rafaela Santa Cruz has dedicated her life to improving access to education.

There was never a doubt in Rafaela Santa Cruz's mind about her direction in life — she always knew it was her destiny to teach.

The director of the San Diego State University/Claremont Graduate University Joint Ph.D. Program in Education spent her formative years working hard in the classroom and translating that knowledge into a passion for education. Despite excelling in math and science, Santa Cruz knew that pursuing a career in education was her goal.

"Teaching is a role I've always enjoyed in life," she said. One of eight children, Santa Cruz spent her youth educating her younger siblings. "For as long as I can remember I've been passionate about teaching — it was a love I developed early in life."

A natural educator

Santa Cruz grew up in Tucson, Arizona where she attended the University of Arizona and received a degree in mathematics. After graduation, she received a fellowship for a master's program in special education at the University of Southern California and she later returned to teach at Tucson High School.

"My whole career has been in
education, so seeing people invest
and immerse themselves in education
has been an amazing thing to witness."

She received her doctorate in educational administration from the University of Arizona in 1979, and was hired as a senior research analyst for an externally funded project at SDSU. The following year she was hired as a faculty member in the Secondary Education Department.

Leading the future

Santa Cruz has instructed on methods of teaching mathematics for elementary, secondary and Spanish bilingual students, educational psychology for secondary students and statistics and research methods for doctoral students.

"The focus of my research and professional growth activities has been to seek solutions to the achievement gap of Latino students, particularly in mathematics," she said.

She is also the director of San Diego Mathematics Project, a leadership staff development program for teachers of mathematics, as well as the Mathematics/Science Teacher Initiative, a program to credential more mathematics and science teachers at SDSU.

Her efforts were recently recognized by the U-T San Diego, where she was selected as a 2014 Latino Champion. The annual awards were created to highlight the strengths of the vibrant local Latino community. 

Santa Cruz and her students are dedicated to improving access to education for students. She also stresses the importance of properly educating instructors so that they are able to teach to the best of their abilities. 

"We are always working with teachers to help improve their craft to subsequently improve student achievement," she said.

Moving forward

As the leader of the joint doctoral program, Santa Cruz has a multitude of responsibilities.

She oversees student recruitment and advising, schedules courses, manages the program budget, teaches classes and acts as a liaison between SDSU and the Clairemont Graduate University.

Her favorite thing about her title is being able to see students develop and excel in their studies. 

"We want students to develop as scholars, so to see them grow in leadership is very rewarding," Santa Cruz said. "My whole career has been in education, so seeing people invest and immerse themselves in education has been an amazing thing to witness."

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