“I have thought about it over and over. If I could have my two legs, I wouldn’t want to. Everything has a purpose and a reason to be. That fact that I was born like this, has opened many doors. It has gifted me with special friends and people that I wouldn’t change for the world. Most importantly, it has made me the person I am today, strong, determined, and grateful for the things that really matter.”
You have probably seen her walking through campus and feel instantly compelled to know her story. What sets her apart from every other student on UPRM? Determination, to say the least. Natalia Santiago Pérez is a Biology freshman who dreams of becoming a prosthetist. Such a unique dream developed from her desire to help other people who have been through the same struggles she has. “I can help them because I know how it feels, I know all they have been through”, referring to her own challenge of living with one leg. Once you meet her, you would be surprised on how quickly you will forget about this. She is cheerful, smart, thoughtful, and very beautiful, but mostly an example that there are no barriers between you and your dreams, except for yourself.
Born and raised in Aibonito, the 18-year-old misses her hometown, yet cherishes the adventure Mayagüez represents, “For the first time in my life I am out of my comfort zone. Mayagüez is a big city compared to where I come from. People stare for sure, but they have been very kind to me. Some have approached and told me that they find me inspiring. I feel grateful about it, yet I don’t think I am any more determined than anybody else. Everybody has struggles, stuff they deal with, mine is just visible.” But she hasn’t always been like this. During middle school, she was bullied for being overweight. “Ballena de tres patas, they called me.” Yet, one day, she decided to stop feeling sorry for herself: “I was the way I was, and I either lived with it and learned to embrace it or spent my whole life wasted on self-pity.” One of the experiences that helped her the most happened last summer, when she visited Shriners Kids Hospitals in Philadelphia to get her prosthetic. There, she met kids who had lost limbs due to violence or illness, which gave her some perspective. “I realized how lucky I am! One leg is all I have ever known, but just the thought of them having to get used to live without something they used to have, makes my situation look like a bliss. Rarely, those may have been the happiest people I have ever met.”
Natalia hasn’t gotten used to her prosthetic, which is why she doesn’t wear it: she says she moves faster without it. However, it was her experience in Shriners Kids that inspired her ultimate goal to establish a hospital in Puerto Rico that would provide free prosthetic limbs to children. This is the reason why she also wants to double major in industrial engineering, to familiarize herself with the techniques involved in creating that kind of technology.
Other than dreaming about making the world a better place, Natalia is an avid reader, especially of Spanish novels. Also, she loves to go out and dance, specially on Thursday nights. “Some people are surprised to see me jangueando but, hey, that is part of the Mayagüez experience and I don’t want to miss on any of it. I have always lived a normal life despite not having my leg: college will be no exception.”