HE’S young, Hispanic, sports an earring and favors Burberry. In short, Dr. George J. Santiago, Jr. is everything you’d never expect in a college president and yet, in relatively quick measure, he has aptly grown into the role of Long Island’s strongest advocate for human and animal rights.
As president of Briarcliffe College, Santiago oversees multiple campuses, serves on no less than five nonprofit boards and has earned dozens of awards for his work in education and throughout the community. He grew up in New Jersey and came to the Island by way of Philadelphia. He’s an avid collector of all things, ranging from the necessary to the simply kitschy — from dvds and kitchen magnets to rubber ducks. He’s bilingual, throws parties that are standing room only and is the proud owner of two Beagles, Fatoula and Spartacus.
Think you know him? Read on …
What are the 3 best things you’ve done in your life?
GJS: I earned my doctorate from Penn State University. I became president of Briarcliffe College, and I have traveled the world.
What mistake did you make that turned out to be your best learning experience?
GJS: I dropped out of college after completing my first semester at Rutgers. The real world was a much scarier place, and I hightailed it back to Rutgers the following fall, and graduated in 1983.
When you were five years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?
GJS: I wanted to be an attorney for the longest time but my grades in college were not the best, so I settled on graduate school.
THIS MAY SOUND CLICHÉ, BUT I WANT TO MATTER.
Why do you do what you do?
GJS: This may sound cliché, but I want to matter. I want to make a difference in the lives of others, just as others have made a profound difference in my life. It’s about giving back.
What’s your biggest vice?
GJS: Binge watching TV, DVD, movies, etc. I watched five seasons of Game of Thrones in three weeks. When I visit my parents during the holidays, I bring 10 to 12 movies, and watch them all (something I wouldn’t do at home). I watched the entire series of Lost in Space in a matter of weeks.
What gives you hope for the future?
GJS: As I have travelled throughout Long Island, I have come to witness a mean spiritedness, or more shocking, explicit outward acts of hate toward our fellow human beings, either unintended because of a lack of social skills, lack of knowledge or a lack of sensitivity, or intended acts of hate because of perceived power differences, arrogance, ignorance, egotistical feelings of superiority, and malicious pleasure seeking. I question the direction of our country, not in terms of leadership, but in terms of its character and its fortitude. What I have come to understand is that there is an increasing disintegration and degeneration of our social discourse, specifically our sense of humanity manifested in the ways we treat each other. This troubles me deeply so when I see acts of kindness by others, this gives me hope for the future.
Who was/is the most influential person in your life?
GJS: My parents, equally. They are my moral compass, and it is their teachings, moral support, sage advice, tough love, and that shoulder to cry on, throughout life, that ground me personally, and have helped me to become the professional I am today.
What’s your idea of a great day off from work?
GJS: During the fall and winter, it is about being a coach potato. During the spring and summer, Fire Island sounds about right.
Coke or Pepsi?
Favorite restaurant (anywhere)?
GJS: It’s a tie: Per Se in New York City and The French Laundry in Napa Valley
Last book read?
GJS: The Road to Character by David Brooks
Where do you get your news?
GJS: Several sources: Newsday, The New York Times, ABC’s World News Tonight, NBC’s The Today Show, MSNBC and ESPN. Oh, and gossip from friends, of course.
What five people, living or dead, would you want to have dinner with?
GJS: Lucille Ball is first on my list (LOVE HER). I would also add funny people like Jim Parsons, Robin Williams, and Patti Lupone (phenomenal entertainer AND a funny lady). JFK would be my fifth. He died when I was three years old so I really didn’t get to know him. OK, I need to add two others: Princess Diana and Prince Harry.
GJS: Passion Fruit Caipirinha from Fogo de Chao. A bit of advice, though: Three will make you messy.
Where was your favorite place to visit, and why?
GJS: I must say that Egypt was my most favorite country. I have always been fascinated by Egyptology, mummies, pharaohs, and tombs to name a few. My visit was so surreal, from my visit to Luxor to the great pyramids at Giza. Icing on the cake was my ride on a camel around the Sphinx.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about you?
GJS: That I’m arrogant or a snob. That’s often confused with self-confidence.
Define leadership and tell us, who is your favorite leader and why?
GJS: Leadership is the ability to profoundly move the needle in a positive direction, an agent of change (if you will), whether it be profoundly moving an individual or a group of people, moving an initiative forward, creating a movement, transforming an organization, or transforming a country. While I do not have a favorite leader, Nelson Mandela comes to mind. He was willing to go to prison for his beliefs, and when he was freed, he continued on his bully pulpit, and he freed a country.
What’s your idea of success?
GJS: I have always been enamored by a quote from Billy Donovan, former head basketball coach for the University of Florida: “Touching people’s lives is the true measure of success.” I am so keenly aware that there are others less fortunate than me, to no fault of their own, who need my help … Our help. We all need to reach out and make a difference, and do so, because it is the right thing to do.
What’s the most memorable random act of kindness you’ve done for someone?
GJS: On a regular basis, I give money to homeless men and women that I pass by, wherever I may encounter them. I never pass judgment on them, but understand that they are not in a good place. They must be treated with dignity.
On another occasion, I was having lunch at a restaurant one day last year, and in comes a group of Boy Scouts, about 20 of them. I paid for their lunch. I was a Boy Scout for eight years, earning its highest rank of Eagle Scout. They were good memories, and I learned a lot about myself and about humanity. It was a way of giving back.
What’s on your bucket list?
GJS: Participating in Mardi Gras in New Orleans in first on the list. This will be realized this February. Reservations are already in place. The Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, the White House, and retiring in Tuscany — like in the movie, Under the Tuscan Sun.