A passion for statistics

U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Santos started his postsecondary education at San Antonio College, the community college in his home town. (Photo: Michele Freda/U.S. Census Bureau)

Robert Santos has made a career in statistics. In his latest job, the Texas native is leading the U.S. Census Bureau, the first Latino person to serve in that role. Although Santos has held numerous executive roles at policy research organizations and higher education institutions, he got his start in math at a community college. He attended San Antonio College in the Alamo Colleges District before receiving a baccalaureate in mathematics from Trinity University (Texas) and a master’s degree in statistics from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Santos previously served for 15 years as vice president and chief methodologist at the Urban Institute and directed its Statistical Methods Group. He also was executive vice president and partner of NuStats, a social science research firm in Austin, Texas.

Santos, who in January became the bureau’s 26th director, answered a few of our questions about his education and career path, the importance of community colleges and more.

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What prompted you to begin your higher education at a community college, San Antonio College in particular?

I believe it was destiny. I graduated third in a class of about 100 from Holy Cross High School in San Antonio and expected to go to college. But since neither of my parents attended college (my father made it through eighth grade), I did not realize that you had to apply during your senior year in high school to be enrolled as a college freshman the following fall. Moreover, I somehow slipped through the cracks and never got around to visiting my high school counselor. So, I had the impression that I could apply to colleges in the summer after high school graduation, get accepted and enroll in the fall. And I suppose that ended up being true – for attending a community college. Thus, San Antonio College, fondly called “la SAC” in the neighborhood, was my first and only choice to go to college in the fall of 1972.

What impact did the experience have on your higher education and career path? Was there a person, program or activity that had a particular effect on you?

Albeit short, my experience at SAC was rather profound. I ended up attending SAC for a single semester, but somehow it felt longer. I often hung out in the Student Activity Center, watching students come and go, doing assignments and meeting students who lived all over the city from different economic and racial and ethnic backgrounds. I also found time to play cards between classes. I was a bit shy, but the structure of a card game gave me the courage to engage and make friends. I had not met many people from outside my neighborhood. The social interactions with fellow students helped me realize that we were all essentially in the same boat – trying to better ourselves through education, looking to make ends meet and someday scoring a decent job. Hopefully, community college would be our path for better things to come.

The other profound experience was that I had an amazing calculus teacher, whose name I unfortunately do not remember. But she was an inspiring teacher and during this semester she continually encouraged me to study mathematics. I loved math and aspired to a career in that area, but I was discouraged that I had not taken advantage of high school counseling. Well, this instructor did such a good job that I decided I would immediately explore my options. So midway into my first semester at SAC, I met with the dean of students at Trinity University, which is a mile or so from the downtown SAC campus. Although the dean was clearly skeptical of me, she listened to my story and must have felt my passion for mathematics in our meeting. She asked me to apply to the university and I was admitted the next semester, which was only weeks away. I still cannot believe my good fortune. But it all happened because an instructor at SAC cared enough to take me aside and encourage me to pursue my dreams. And yes, she submitted a nice recommendation for me.

Has that experience in any way shaped how you do your work? For example, when there is discussion about postsecondary education, it often focuses solely on four-year institutions and excludes two-year and certificate credentials. With your experience, do you look to include those pathways in research analysis on education, job training, employment, poverty, etc.?

My experience at SAC not only helped shape how I do my work, but it helped shape who I am as a professional and as a person. It reinforced the values instilled in me from 12 years of parochial school. Forevermore, my two passions in life were mathematics (now, statistics) and helping people. Because of my instructor’s kindness and encouragement, I have maintained a strong desire to “pay it forward.” I mentor early-, mid- and even late-career folks regardless of race, sex, gender, age, race or ethnicity. I have even helped staff who work at competitor organizations. I helped younger career staff learn the art of teamwork, management and research design and methods. I’ve also promoted careers in statistics and, as part of those efforts, I have reached out to community colleges. With the cost of postsecondary education rising, community college holds the key to education that is both affordable and high quality.

Regarding careers in research, statistical design and analysis – which is a growing area of interest in education – what suggestions would you offer to community college leaders to help them prepare the workforce in this field?

I would first recommend that community colleges review the American Statistical Association’s Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Statistics Education College Report. The report provides guidance on the goals of a statistics education, which can easily be applied to a community college setting. I would also include this in an introductory data science curriculum. It would be useful to reach out to the local business community to get feedback on the knowledge and skills they seek when hiring in these areas, as well as opportunities for internships and apprenticeships. And I would recruit the technical experts in the local business community to participate in seminars, teach a course or participate in a student mentorship program. The Census Bureau also has a vast set of resources that include free webinars, and we have staff across the country whose job is to train schools, businesses, etc. on how to use Census Bureau data. I’d encourage any community college professor to tap into these resources.

What advice would you offer students considering a career in research and analysis?

You should absolutely learn the technical content and methods of research and analysis. But never leave your brain in the parking lot. When it comes to research, technical knowledge and applying methods alone can lead to misleading results. You need to develop your critical-thinking skills and infuse them with your life experience, your culture and your values. They are a rich reservoir we all possess, yet seldom leverage as a resource at work or in life. There have been too many times over a 40-year career where I have used my life experience and culture (in my case, being a Latino from San Antonio) to help researchers realize that they were defining a problem in a biased fashion or were incorrectly interpreting data analyses that really required community member perspectives to fully understand. You need such enhanced critical thinking to really appreciate and uncover truly effective, culturally relevant, actionable insights from research. Feel free to check out my blog for a real-world example.

At the Census Bureau, we want and need to hear from diverse voices and experiences. We are connecting with a number of colleges and universities across the country to reach underrepresented populations and ensure our future workforce reflects the American population we serve. The Census Bureau has numerous opportunities for those focused on research and analysis, business, social sciences, mathematics, computer science and more. Please check out our website to learn more: Student Opportunities Program.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.