'All I took was my backpack' - DACA recipient is named Rhodes Scholar

STORY: In a first, a beneficiary of the U.S. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration program has won the prestigious Rhodes scholarship.

Santiago Potes is a 23-year old recent graduate of Columbia University in New York.

"I was born in the southern part of Colombia in South America, and I just came from a long line of, I guess, farmers and plantation owners, and I really would have just stayed there pretty much growing up had my family not been attacked by FARC terrorists," Potes told Reuters in a recent interview, referring to the rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which in 2016 signed a peace deal with the government after five decades of civil conflict in Colombia that left 260,000 dead and millions displaced.

Potes's journey from the battlefield of Colombia to Oxford has also seen difficulty in the U.S. Potes said his family home was raided by U.S. immigration agents when he was a pre-teen.

His father - who himself would be deported later on - told the young Potes to "take one thing" as they fled the house.

"I chose to take my school backpack because I still wanted to go to school," he said.

The DACA program was created by U.S. President Barack Obama in 2012 and benefitted some 700,000 children brought to the United States. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a bid by U.S. President, Donald Trump, to end the program that protects from deportation hundreds of thousands of immigrants - often called "Dreamers."

Potes has advocated for DACA recipients on CNN.com among other publications

The scholar will look to focus on Chinese history during the 1978-1989 reign of Deng Xiaoping during his time at Oxford.

Initially drawn in by a love for China's language and literature, Potes has come to realize the geopolitical utility the specialization brings him. China has an "incredibly interesting history and especially you know, with its really consequential position that it holds today, as it relates to global affairs. And so I think that's how I became interested in China," he said.

Despite winning the scholarship, Potes is humble.

"I feel like this scholarship is not meant for me," he said.

"It's meant for people who have had perfect grades, you know, who are just like perfect people. And I'm just definitely not that."

Potes's intellectual curiosity is supplemented by a musical flair for violin playing, which he showed off to Reuters with a rendition of Maurice Ravel's "Tzigane."

His ultimate interests are centered on security policy, he said, with the aspiration of working as an advisor to a U.S. senator as a potential career.

(Production by: Dan Fastenberg)

Video Transcript

SANTIAGO POTES: I learned that I was undocumented the morning that ICE showed up at our doorstep to deport us. I think I must have been 11, or 12, or 10. I remember my father told me that I could only take one thing with me. And, you know, we had our entire house there, but I chose to take my school backpack.

I just came from a long line of, I guess, farmers and plantation owners. And I really would have just stayed there, you know, pretty much growing up had my family not been attacked by a FARC.

[MUSIC - "TZIGANE"]

I chose not to apply when I was a senior because I just didn't see how I could possibly attend Oxford, because that means I have to leave the country. And since I am-- I am a DACA beneficiary, each step I'll think to myself, you know what? Like, it's not going to happen. We'll just-- I'm waiting for them to reject me for whatever reason. And, yeah, until the actual interview took place, and then they told us on the same day they were two names. One of them was mine, and I was-- I was just-- I mean, I still didn't believe it.

I still don't believe it because it's just-- I just feel like I'm-- I feel like this scholarship is not meant for me. It's meant for people who have had perfect grades, you know, who are just like perfect people, and I'm just definitely not that.

[MUSIC PLAYING]