Elizabeth Santiago ’20 understands what it’s like to feel as if you don’t have a voice.
As a shy teenager from a Puerto Rican family, she loved reading and writing but felt invisible and unsupported in her Boston high school.
She left without graduating. She later earned her GED and went on to get a BFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College, a Master of Education from Harvard, and a PhD in Educational Studies from Lesley, but her early experiences stayed with her and shaped her path as she pursued a career in mentoring and teaching.
Elizabeth, who goes by Liz, has a passion for storytelling that grew out of her her own personal history and her work as an educational consultant and literacy teacher.
“Growing up in my community, I saw people who were struggling with the situation they found themselves in, but they weren't any less intelligent than anyone else that I had run across in my travels.”
She wanted to improve people’s reading skills, but she also wanted to build their confidence and help heal the trauma that had caused them to disconnect from school.
“Writing is a way that helps us process things,” she explains. “And that's what I was interested in.”
At Lesley, a creative breakthrough she had while working toward her Individually Designed PhD in Educational Studies led her to write a young adult novel, Moonlit Vine, as part of her thesis. Her Lesley doctoral work focused on ways to help older youth and young adults use creative writing to gain literacy skills and tell their stories. She also launched a website, The Untold Narratives, where people can submit their writing for publication to the site.
Owning your own narrative
As an educator leading the GED/high school equivalency program at the Harriet Tubman House in Boston's South End, Liz used these creative writing techniques to engage and motivate students. She believes that community-based programs are especially effective in reaching people who don’t think of themselves as writers or storytellers. “You have to be in the community connecting with folks—it's the only way,” she says.
She also believes that it’s important for people to own their own stories. Her years in the nonprofit sector sometimes highlighted the ways that the personal narratives of marginalized people could be misused.
“Years ago, one of our fundraisers put a story on our website that a young person had told during a conference workshop,” Liz recalls. “The speaker reached out to me and said, ‘I don't want this out there like this.’ And I had to have a hard conversation with the fundraiser and we had to take it down.”
Liz recognized the feeling from her own experience as a young person whose story could fit into a narrative of triumph over adversity.
“I've also felt very exploited at times when people wanted to use my story in some way, and I went along with it, even though I felt like it wasn’t an accurate depiction.”
Eager to explore the ways that creative writing can help empower marginalized young people, Liz sought out Lesley's Individually Designed PhD in Educational Studies program, which makes it possible for students to pursue areas of inquiry and scholarly research that are personally and professionally meaningful to them.
During her time at Lesley, Liz designed a course focusing on reading and writing skills that students need to earn their high school equivalency diploma. She also began to reflect more on her own experience.
In her 20s, she had written a children’s book that was bought by a publisher and then shelved, so she lost the copyright. Discouraged, she had put her writing to the side and focused on her career. But now the need to tell her own story reemerged as a central element of her work.
“I was getting triggered by a lot of the things that I was reading and I was really struggling with how to write about it in this academic way,” Liz reflects. “And so I ended up writing a novel.”
Moonlit Vine, which is a young adult historical fantasy, centers on 14-year-old Taína, who draws from the strength of her Taíno ancestors to bring her family and community hope and healing after a tragic incident. Liz submitted the novel as a qualifying paper for the PhD program, along with the rest of her work.
Through the process of completing her PhD and defending her dissertation, she found support and encouragement from her fellow students and faculty, including Dr. Mary Ann Cappiello who championed her non-traditional dissertation.
“Mary Ann was an amazing guide, mentor and advisor,” Liz says.
Helping others share their stories
Liz’s work in the PhD program helped clarify her thinking around the direction she wanted her career to take.
The Untold Narratives website, which Liz co-founded with poet and visual artist Victoria Del Valle, provides a welcoming space for people to discover themselves as writers. She hopes to work with writing organizations like Write Boston and GrubStreet, and also to connect with people who don’t think of themselves as writers or doubt they have a story worth sharing.
“I want people to feel like they still have a voice, even if their grammar isn’t good or the craft of writing isn’t there,” Liz says.
She's encouraged by the new ways that young people are finding to create their own narratives.
“On the site, I'm building out how to tell your story on TikTok, how to tell your story on YouTube. Everybody’s written a poem at some point—how do you build on that? How do we honor that?” she says.
A writer on the move
Since completing the PhD program, Liz’s consulting work pivoted to focus on helping schools and nonprofits illuminate and share the stories behind their mission. She is teaching at GrubStreet and will teach creative writing to non-traditional students at Boston College’s Woods College of Advancing Studies. She’s working through final edits to her novel before its publication by Lee and Low in the fall of 2022. And with the launch of The Untold Narratives, she hopes to create a space for more people to tell their stories.
She looks back on her time at Lesley as a pivotal point in her journey.
“I'm so glad I did it because it just brought to light some things that I wasn’t focused on or admitting—that I wanted to write. I wanted to create stories.”
Learn more about the Individually Designed PhD program
With Lesley's Individually Designed PhD in Educational Studies, you can design your own flexible program that draws from your personal and professional experiences. You'll work with faculty to define your research focus and create a detailed study plan. And our low-residency model means that you'll come to campus for 9 days each summer and for a three-day weekend in January, then complete the rest of your work remotely.
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