First-generation student faces world of opportunity as future Air Force officer

Justin McDaniel
April 17, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For first-generation college student Josh Maldonado-Santiago, a Penn State telecommunications degree and a future commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force are proof positive that hard work does indeed pay off.

Growing up as the son of Puerto Rican immigrants in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Maldonado-Santiago took the ethos of hard work instilled in him by his parents to heart, eventually graduating first in his high school class, attending Penn State, and excelling in the University’s Air Force ROTC program.

But Maldonado-Santiago’s many successes have not come without challenges. As he prepares for spring commencement and his upcoming Air Force commissioning ceremony, we sat down with Maldonado-Santiago to learn more about what drove him from humble, blue-collar beginnings to a bright future serving his country. 

To learn more about Maldonado-Santiago’s story, visit impact.psu.edu.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your life growing up? What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

Both my mother and father were always working. The reason we came here to begin with was because my parents had me at a very young age in Puerto Rico. Growing up, for me, it was pretty normal, from my perspective at least. I didn’t have everything I wanted, but I had exactly what I needed.

Elementary school was a bit tough. I was actually taken out of my history or social studies classes to get extra help because I struggled with reading, writing, and just basic English. So I actually didn’t have a history class until middle school, believe it or not, and now I have a military studies minor, which is basically a history minor.

"My dad made it known to me that in order to be successful and get somewhere in life I was going to have to put in time and sacrifice, sometimes do the things you don’t want to do, in order to do the things you want to accomplish."

Things were really strict, in terms of how I was raised, because of the fact that my parents kind of struggled to make ends meet and they were both really young. My dad made it known to me that in order to be successful and get somewhere in life I was going to have to put in time and sacrifice, sometimes do the things you don’t want to do, in order to do the things you want to accomplish.

Q: After struggling early on in school, how did you turn things around, and how rewarding was it to be named valedictorian?

In high school things really took off. I was able to play a sport year-round, while maintaining good grades. I was the captain of two sports. I wrestled, ran cross-country, played baseball, and ran track. I was the captain of cross-country and wrestling. Things really progressed rapidly in terms of academics. I slowly but steadily came to the top of my class.

The journey wasn't easy by any means. I would wake up at 6:30 a.m., go to school all day, have practice for two or three hours after school, and then I would do homework until midnight. I don't think my work ethic has changed since then, but I've been doing it since late middle school or early high school.

It means a lot to me and my family. My family has guided me to get where I am today, and if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be as grateful as I am. It's almost like not only am I living this life for myself, but I'm living it for all my family. It brings a lot of pride to my family knowing that things are really different from my parents, but with the proper guidance, I was able to do all of the things that I was supposed to.

Josh Maldonado-Santiago stands in a hallway

In addition to his student and ROTC responsibilities, Josh Maldonado-Santiago finds time for a work-study assignment in the Smeal College of Business.

IMAGE: Michelle Bixby

Q: How did you come to choose Penn State?

My decision came down to either Ohio State or Penn State. In high school we would watch football games and it would always be that Penn State-Ohio State rivalry. Ohio was always kind of the bad guys in a way. I don’t know if it had something to do with the red. Even though I was a valedictorian, coming from a small school doesn’t guarantee you financial stability in terms of secondary education. It came down to in-state tuition. That was easiest for my family.

I knew I wanted to do a big school coming from a small high school. The bigger school offers more opportunities, greater incentives for you to do things. When you get here and you realize how big it is and how nice and how homey-feeling it feels, it’s a very comforting and accepting community to be a part of. The first time I came here I fell in love with it.

Q: One of the things you’ve been able to do at Penn State is be a part of the Air Force ROTC program. Why did you decide to join ROTC?

Definitely 9/11 contributed to that in some fashion. Just how can I do something to prevent this stuff from happening?

Three of my uncles from my dad’s side of the family were military. So that was an important aspect and contribution to me wanting to join. One of my uncles was a chemical operations specialist in the Army. Another was a combat engineer who served in Bosnia, Korea, and many parts of the U.S. When I was little, he was stationed at Fort Dix-McGuire in New Jersey, and we would always visit him right on the base. Another one of my uncles was a heavy combat engineer and an expert marksman in the Army. He actually gained this prestigious accolade by participating in a shootout qualification by hitting 39 of 40 targets that ranged from 50 to 400 yards. His son and my cousin also was in the Army. As a sharpshooter who served one tour in Iraq, he was very influential in my desire to join the military. Seeing him in uniform from time to time was really inspiring and it motivated me. I can't thank him enough! This specific cousin is actually going to be the first person to salute me, which is an important military tradition on the day of commissioning. I would not want to share this moment with anyone else, other than family.

"I think to myself, ‘I’m going to be protecting the nation and its people. If I put myself in their shoes, what kind of person would I want defending me?’ That’s basically the moral standard I live by. How can I push myself so that I do better every day?"

With this said, there is a long history of military commitment, service and sacrifice in my family. I wanted to pay my respects to them, I wanted to honor what they did, and, above all, I wanted to do the same for those that came before me and those that will come after me.

Q: In what ways has the ROTC program shaped your Penn State experience?

The first time I got here on campus I was really overwhelmed and felt almost alone. I felt like I had nobody to connect with. But that’s only until you find your little niche group. I found that here in ROTC. ROTC pushed me out of my comfort zone, but I think that was really needed. Being here, the fact that it’s the military, it’s really strict. It pushes you in a good way. It almost makes classes a little bit easier. You’re prepared with the appropriate skill sets that you need in order to be successful, not just in the military, but in academics and in life.

Q: How do you balance your responsibilities as a cadet and a student? What is a normal day like?

We have specific jobs within this program. So everyone that you see walking around here with a uniform has a specific job within the unit, and they’re all responsible for specific things. I’ve had several leadership positions -- I’ve been the executive officer here. I’ve been a training group commander in charge of training a wing of over 180 cadets. Right now I actually have two jobs. I’m a deputy squadron commander in charge of 23 people, but in addition to that I’m a flight commander in charge of specifically 11 cadets who I have a more personal connection with.

I’m also a full-time student with all normal class responsibilities, but in addition to that, I have to prepare presentations. I have to make sure that all of my 23 men and women are up to date with their coursework. I have to set up various meetings throughout the course of the week to ensure that everyone is OK. It’s a full-time job. If you take a look at my schedule, it’s packed from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Josh Maldonado-Santiago with arms stretched outside the Taj Mahal

Josh Maldonado-Santiago visited the Taj Mahal last summer as part of a study-abroad program in India. The opportunity, which took him to Delhi and the Himalayan foothills for six weeks as part of the Department of Defense’s Project Global Officer program, exposed him to the Hindi language and allowed him to build his leadership skills with fellow ROTC students from across the United States.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Josh Maldonado-Santiago

Q: Last summer you studied abroad in India. How did that opportunity impact you?

I grew up speaking both English and Spanish, and in high school I took Italian. Exposure to different languages has always been a part of my life, as has been exposure to different cultures. Something I wanted to do was learn a different language (other than the three mentioned) and travel and experience study abroad. Within Air Force ROTC there is a program called Project Global Officers, or Project GO for short. It’s a critical language program offered to only military ROTC cadets and midshipmen.

We spent about a week in Delhi, the third most populated city in the world. We were immersed in a cultural program in Delhi where we experienced food, music, dance, Bollywood, religion and the different deities. Then we went up north to a state called Dehradun, and basically we were in the Himalaya foothills.

The language itself, the schooling, was six weeks in an old Christian church run predominantly by missionaries. Our day would consist of classes from 8 a.m. until noon. It was pretty intensive based on your skill level. I went into it with no Hindi experience whatsoever, so I was pretty much a beginner. Then we’d do class -- reading, writing -- for about four hours each day, Monday through Friday. Afternoons were dedicated to homework and cultural excursions where we could go to different homes and towns and try to articulate what we were learning in class.

Q: As you enter the military, what lessons learned at Penn State will you take with you?

Time management, for one. Excellence in all you do. Anything worth doing is worth over-doing. If you’re going to do something, give it 110 percent. I think to myself, ‘I’m going to be protecting the nation and its people. If I put myself in their shoes, what kind of person would I want defending me?’ That’s basically the moral standard I live by. How can I push myself so that I do better every day?

Last Updated April 19, 2019