The U.S. Census Bureau Director and 1972 San Antonio College alumnus Robert Santos was surprised with an honorary degree from the Alamo Colleges District after his uplifting commencement speech to graduates at the Alamodome on Thursday.

After his speech ended, Santos walked over to his seat but was signaled to stand.

Confused, he stood and joined college leaders at the podium. Alamo Colleges District 4 Trustee Lorraine Pulido took the mic.

“This is the 30th honorary degree awarded in the history of the Alamo Colleges,” she said, as Santos placed his hand over his heart and smiled in gratitude, realizing what was happening. “It is based on extraordinary achievements in the fields of the humanities, education, and social services, which exemplify the mission and vision of the Alamo Colleges.”

Officials handed Santos a medal and a diploma, an honorary associate science degree for “outstanding public service to the Alamo Colleges, the community, and for significant contributions to society at large.”

“I have to tell you, I still think of myself as just another ‘vato loco de San Antonio,’” Santos told more than 1,000 San Antonio College, Travis Early College High School, and GED-Through-College program graduates jokingly. “I am you — 50 years ago.”

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Santos attended Holy Cross High School on the West Side and attended San Antonio College in 1972, where he earned 15 credit hours before transferring to Trinity University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. He went on to study at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and received his master’s degree in statistics.

Over his 40-year career as a renowned statistician, Santos focused on survey research, statistical design and analysis, and has had positions in executive-level management, to which he credits a San Antonio College professor who inspired him to think big.

Santos became director of the U.S. Census Bureau in January, on the heels of a tumultuous 2020 census that undercounted Black and Latino people. As the first Latino director of the Census, Santos told The New York Times last month that those flaws led to his efforts to rebuild trust in the community.

“Our country not only is becoming more wonderfully diverse, but we’re also appreciating culture and ancestry in ways that maybe didn’t exist 20 years ago,” he told the Times. “We’re appreciating who we are more, and I think that’s a beautiful thing and we should be capturing that.”

Santos held executive and vice president positions at social science and nonprofit research organizations like NuStats, the Urban Institute, and the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center.

He also served as director of survey operations for the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and led senior study design and sampling statistician at Temple University’s Institute for Survey Research.

During his speech, Santos told graduates to let their unique perspectives and identity shine, explaining it brings forth innovative and creative solutions.

“Being Latino de alma y soul, I want to pass on a few consejos,” Santos said in the commencement speech. “Everything you need to be successful is already inside of you. You just need to let it out. That’s the secret.”

No matter what field of study, Santos said, critical thinking determines success.

“The way you do that is to bring your whole self to the table: Your values, your culture, your life experiences, and technical training,” he told the crowd of more than 1,000 graduates.

Bringing your whole self to the table actually takes your critical thinking skills to the next level, he said, and when a group does that, it makes the outcome better.

“We need all these different voices and perspectives based on our whole selves in order to come up with some truly unique solutions to the problems that face society,” Santos said.

“That’s what I’m doing at the Census Bureau, and that’s what I’m passing on to you.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correctly identify Alamo Colleges District 4 Trustee Lorraine Pulido.

Raquel Torres is the San Antonio Report's breaking news reporter. She previously worked at the Tyler Morning Telegraph and is a 2020 graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University.