Spring 2021

Building on culture

Courtesy of Dakota Santillan

Dakota Santillan is fascinated with what architecture tells us about a place. Having lived in the United States, Canada, and Ecuador, he noticed how the different styles of buildings reflect a country’s culture.

“In Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, for example, the cultural history of the Incas is still represented in the housing, language, and traditions,” he says, explaining that raw materials from the Earth are used in construction today much the way they were in ancient times—a sharp contrast to the modern buildings in the United States (where he was born) and Canada.

Santillan credits that interest with bringing him to the University of Minnesota. In 2019, after living in Ecuador with his mother and later Canada with his father, he returned to the United States. He chose Minneapolis, where he has family, and began studying at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC).

“MCTC was nice, but the University of Minnesota offered a career path to architecture,” he says. “The day I went to the U of M for a tour, I really fell in love and realized I needed to be there.”

Santillan was in the process of transferring to the U’s College of Design for the fall 2020 semester when the COVID-19 pandemic happened. Campus life came to a standstill, classes moved online, and his job ended. Then in May, a family member in Ecuador fell ill with COVID. He needed to go home.

A new perspective

Unable to return to the United States because of travel restrictions, Santillan began his U of M studies online from his home in Otavalo. “I didn’t want to miss this opportunity,” he says.

Being one of the first recipients of the Mortenson Family Scholarship helped make it work, he says. “I was hoping to work different jobs during the summer and save money, but the pandemic came and that didn’t happen,” he says. “The scholarship helped me not worry about how I was going to finance my education.”

Santillan says the past year has been transformative. “Coming back changed my perspective of how I see Ecuador and my city. Businesses were closed, many families were poor. I wanted to help the community,” he says.

His family member recovered from COVID, but his mother’s business fell off, leading Santillan and his family to look for ways to sell her goods online. “The pandemic changed everyone,” he says. “But for me, it made me realize I’m not a kid anymore.”

Santillan hopes to earn a master’s in architecture and one day start his own firm. Among his goals are to blend designs from different cultures, create housing that’s affordable, and help multicultural students who are interested in the field. “With my experience, I would like to be able to change society through architecture,” he says.