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Triumph over tragedy

Cruz Santibanez will become the first person in her family to graduate from a four-year college, earning a degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with the next goal of being a news anchor

Cruz Santibanez
Cruz Santibanez on the set of Carolina Week, the broadcast news program of the School of Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

When Cruz Santibanez woke up in UNC’s surgical intensive care unit on July 4, 2008, she’d cleared the first hurdle – she was alive.

The next thing on her list: getting back to class.

The vibrant 17-year-old had suffered a catastrophic burn while grilling corn with her mother at a Smithfield flea market, sending her into a weeks-long coma and leaving her incapacitated. She would need to undergo – and survive – countless surgeries, retrain her body to move and eat and read, and endure the kind of pain she can still find no words to describe. Over and over in the four months she’d spend at N.C. Children’s Hospital and the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center, Santibanez would exceed her doctors’ expectations.

And, her own.

Typically, she’d cared more about friends and clothes than classes. That was about to change.

“I needed to get out of there, because I needed to get to school,” said Santibanez. “This was my mom’s biggest dream, to see her kids be somebody.”

Sunday, Santibanez will make her mother’s day by becoming the first person in the family to graduate from a four-year college, earning a degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with the next goal of being a news anchor. Her parents, two sisters and two brothers will be with her in Kenan Stadium, and another brother, Jose, will join from Mexico via Skype.

Santibanez had once wanted to go into the medical field like Jose, who was a registered nurse. But that path shifted in February 2008 when a family tragedy left Jose and their father wounded, and a cousin dead. Both men were arrested, and Jose would eventually go to jail for the voluntary manslaughter of their cousin.

“The reporters and local news were everywhere, but no one ever interviewed my brother. They interviewed people who weren’t even at the scene, and they were airing that information as fact,” said Santibanez.

She didn’t know anything about newsgathering or storytelling, and she felt helpless watching the story unfold with so many missing pieces. She paid close attention to the news and sat by her father’s side in the hospital, fielding inaccuracies over the phone.

“The more I learned, the more I wanted to be a part of something like that and make it better. I thought to myself, ‘I could be an anchor.’”

Just three months later, Santibanez would impulsively reach to turn on the grill for her mother, tragedy striking the family again.

‘I knew she could make it’

When she woke up from her coma that summer six years ago, Santibanez was not expected to remember much. Still, she was flooded with memories of the accident – the grill catching fire before her eyes, what it felt like to be consumed by the flames, a voice calmly coaching, “Come on, Cruz, stay with me. Stay awake.”

That September, Santibanez left the hospital and returned to Union High School, her clothes pressing painfully on the gauze and compression sleeves that protected her broken skin. The school encouraged her to take a semester off. She said no.

Though her fingertips were too raw to properly type her papers, she wanted more than anything to graduate.

“Everything I didn’t want to do before, I wanted to do, and as soon as I could,” she said. “My old life was gone, and I wanted to be somebody better.”

While she was in the hospital, Santibanez had passed the time by watching the news. She saw how the anchors looked, and it wasn’t like her. But the burn, the surgeries ahead, the family tragedies – none of those obstacles were bigger than her drive to turn it all around.

“I knew I wanted to be an anchor, and those people were so physically beautiful, so gorgeous and flawless, and here I was with all these scars, just completely disfigured. It popped into my mind – I want to be there, and not to look like them, but to change the face of what a perfect body and image should be.”

After high-school graduation, Santibanez obtained an associate degree online, juggling school at home and surgeries in Chapel Hill. The operations were exhausting and left her susceptible to infection.

Her surgeon, Charles Hultman, asked what she’d want to do next, and she told him she’d thought of being a journalist. Hultman called his friend Richard Cole, a professor and a former dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“They wanted to see if I could transfer to Carolina. I thought, ‘there’s no way,’” said Santibanez.

Cole invited her for a meeting and Santibanez saw Carroll Hall, the journalism school building, for the first time. “I knew this was what I wanted and where I wanted to be,” she said.

What promise Santibanez saw in a life at Carolina, Cole saw in her. He recognized the kind of can-do attitude necessary to pull through tough times.

“She’d been so badly burned, and her family had been through hard things, but she had this sunny, positive outlook and this upbeat personality, and I knew she could make it,” said Cole. “More importantly, I thought she deserved a chance.”

Santibanez applied to Carolina and was accepted. Soon after, she learned she qualified for the Carolina Covenant, which grants eligible low-income Carolina students the opportunity to graduate debt-free.

“Receiving that was beyond a blessing,’’ Santibanez said. “To this day, I still can’t find the words to express how fortunate I feel. It’s been three years, but I still remember how my mother cried. These were the kinds of opportunities she’d dreamed of for me.”

Gift of graduation

In fall 2011, Santibanez traveled again to Chapel Hill, but this time as a Carolina student. She’s made the most of her experience, working as an intern at UNC News Services, volunteering for the student newscast Carolina Week and spending a day shadowing Robin Roberts at ABC’s Good Morning America.

“The school work hasn’t always been easy, but she did it, and she worked and had to undergo surgeries at the same time,” said Cole. “Her internal drive and determination really pushes her forward, and I admire that.”

When Santibanez joined Carolina Week as a reporter last semester, she was on camera for the first time.

“It was the best feeling, just overwhelming, to finally be up there,’’ she said. “This is where my passion is. I want to know everything there is to know about it, and I want to do it forever.”

Particularly, her passion is for people, people who have experienced pain and tragedy, and she’d like to have a career where she draws that out of them, helps them make sense of it.

She knows there are people who wonder how someone with so many scars will make it on television, and that they are shocked when she tells them it doesn’t cross her mind.

At least, not in the way they imagine.

“This happened to me, and I’m going to continue on this path because I can’t go back and change it. I’m not hiding it, and it’s a part of me,” she said. “Being burned didn’t keep me from being an anchor, and if seeing that can make an impact on students here, I wonder what it would do if more people could see that.”

After more than 30 surgeries, Santibanez will have another later this month, her last for a while. After recovering at home, she’ll hit the job market. She’s already had some interest, and she’s not afraid of what comes next.

“I look back and see myself sitting on my bed at home, before Carolina, worrying about where I’d be in two years,’’ she Santibanez, who plans to give her graduation robe to her mom as a Mother’s Day present after Sunday’s ceremony. “I see how much I was able to accomplish here, and how many people were there to help me, and now I get so excited just thinking where I might be in a few years.”