Living the American Dream

By Megan Bradshaw on May 20, 2018

Brazilian’s 14-year journey to learn English and earn a degree is coming to a close

Janaina Santos

As a child in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Janaina Santos ’18 had big plans. The daughter of a pre-kindergarten teacher and an upholsterer dreamed of being a doctor.

As she grew older, Santos realized her education opportunities were limited. She heard if she learned English, she could get a good job as a bilingual secretary. 

“When I was younger, I looked around and always wanted something else,” remembered Santos. “I knew I had to focus on getting out, no matter how long it took.”

She convinced her parents that if she learned English, she could give them a brighter future, and that going to London would be the best way to do it. Santos worked as a restaurant hostess and a clothing store associate for a year to earn the money she needed to travel. 

She admits it was hard watching her friends spending while she saved. Santos devised a unique plan to keep herself from spending her money: She bought a car.

“I knew if I had all my money tied up, then I couldn’t spend it,” she said. “I made at least two payments every month. When I paid it off, I sold it and used the money to buy my ticket to London.”

She was 22 when she left Brazil.

With little money and even less English, she knew finding a job was going to be paramount— and difficult.

Once again, Santos relied on her resourcefulness and determination to find a solution. She scoured a magazine for expatriate Brazilians, focusing on restaurants and hair salons. She went door to door and found work at a salon shampooing hair and booking appointments for Brazilian clients. 

During the year Santos spent in London, she worked, took English classes and met her husband, who is also Brazilian. They returned to their country to marry, and Santos worked as a bilingual secretary. When the role she originally planned for didn’t fit, she and her husband returned to the United Kingdom.

Another year in the U.K. gave way to three in Ireland. Santos worked as a babysitter and took English classes at night in Dublin.

“It was a great experience,” she enthused. “Working with children [prepared me for] becoming a mother. I could practice my English, and it was really, really, really great learning about the Irish culture. Once you’re outside your own culture, you have to be open to others because that’s where the opportunities are.”

A desire to be near family led Santos and her husband to Pennsylvania, where her older sister lives. The pair moved to Maryland, and she decided she was ready to enroll in college. 

Santos graduated from Howard Community College in 2014 with honors. Her daughter was born in 2015—an experience she calls “her second dream coming true”—and Santos spent two years as a stay-at-home mom.

She kept planning and dreaming, though. With the encouragement of her husband and an HCC counselor, she applied for—and earned—an international student scholarship that enabled her to enroll at Towson University.

At first she thought about nursing. Then, remembering her childhood dream, Santos focused on biology and a pre-medicine track.

At age 34, with a 6-month-old.

Santos admits it was hard. She credits biology professors Colleen Winters, Michelle Snyder and Erik Silldorff with being her support system on campus.

But her greatest praise is reserved for her husband.

“He is my inspiration and my best friend,” she stressed. “He always supports me, and when I start to doubt, he says ‘Honey, no, no, no. Who are you, and where is my wife? You can do this!’ I got the best one.” 

While Santos isn’t content with a bachelor’s degree—she plans to spend a year doing research before applying to physician’s assistant programs and medical schools—she can’t wait to help her husband start working toward his dreams. 

He has worked as a remodeler to support her but wants to study astronomy.

“He loves physics, and I think he would be an amazing physics teacher,” Santos said. “We take our daughter outside and collect bugs and specimens to look at under our microscope. She loves to tell my father all kinds of science facts!”

When Santos crosses the stage on May 23, having earned her degree in biology from Fisher College of Science and Mathematics, she won’t be the only one who is thrilled.

Her parents, sister, husband and daughter will be in SECU Arena to cheer on the first member of their family to receive a college degree. 

“It is hard to believe that one little girl dreamed and that her dream became true,” Santos said. “I am living the American dream. Against all the possible odds, at 36 years old, I will be graduating from Towson University. This amazing university gave me hope and a chance to succeed. I will be forever grateful and proud to be an alumna. 

“It doesn’t matter how slow you go as long as you don’t stop.” 

This story is one of several related to President Kim Schatzel's priorities for Towson University: Diverse and Inclusive Campus and TIGER Way.