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University of Mississippi

JTC 24: From Cooking to the Classroom

Alexandra Santiago keeps passion for food alive in academic pursuits

Alexandra Santiago

Alexandra Santiago


This story is part of the 2024 Journey to Commencement series, which celebrates the pinnacle of the academic year by highlighting University of Mississippi students and their outstanding academic and personal journeys from college student to college graduate.

After more than 18 months of building a business, Alexandra Santiago made the decision to close her popular “Tex-Mex-ississippi” restaurant, Sleepy Cactus in order to return to school.

In December 2023, she announced on Instagram that her breakfast tacos – with their distinctive gold foil wrappers – would be available at Heartbreak Coffee on the Oxford Square. Meanwhile, she would be busy a half-mile away, completing her Bachelor of University Studies at the University of Mississippi.

It was a big shift for Santiago, who moved from San Antonio, Texas, to Oxford in 2009 to study early childhood education. But she soon left school to pursue her passion in the kitchens of some of Oxford’s most famous restaurants.

Having learned how to cook alongside her grandmother as a toddler, and then later from cookbooks and food television, Santiago was a quick study when it came to the culinary arts. Her education courses, on the other hand, had been a struggle.

Santiago’s academic counselor let her retake a required – but dreaded – college algebra course multiple times, even after she passed. At the time, “there was no, ‘Hey, do you maybe want to explore something else that you might like more than education? Which you seem to hate?'” Santiago reflected with a dry smile.

It wasn’t until she saw her partner, Kakky Brown, return to school for a master’s degree in counseling, that Santiago realized just how close she had been to finishing her own degree. She had only 27 credit hours left to graduate, which she could earn in less than a year through the university’s Complete to Compete program.

Not only that, but watching Brown pursue her master’s made school actually seem appealing. It signaled a major change in her outlook.

“I had grown up,” Santiago said. After 12 years working in the service industry – not to mention, starting and managing her own restaurant – Santiago knew she had the drive and determination to accomplish whatever she set her mind to. She also had a better sense of what she actually liked.

“While working at City Grocery Group, I participated in two years of the Southern Foodways Alliance’s fall symposium, and I started to learn about how cool the food was in the South, because of the diversity in the region,” she said. “I listened to SFA’s podcast, I got their magazine and I read their books. I had been doing my own independent study of Southern food for years.”

That independent study led her to coursework at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. After graduating, she plans to start the master’s program in Southern studies this fall, with the intention of working with the SFA as a way to keep her brain in food, even when she’s not actually in a kitchen.

Alexandra Santiago (left) and Kakky Brown celebrate the Ole Miss Rebels' 2022 national championship in baseball. Submitted photo

Alexandra Santiago (left) and Kakky Brown celebrate the Ole Miss Rebels’ 2022 national championship in baseball. Submitted photo

Besides two courses for the education concentration for her bachelor’s degree, Santiago has taken courses in gender studies, Southern studies and studio arts – courses she was always interested in but never pursued.

Kathryn McKee, the university’s McMullan Professor of Southern Studies and center director, highlighted Santiago’s characteristic curiosity and passion for learning.

“Ale stayed after class the other day to continue the discussion,” McKee said. “I said, ‘Are you working on a project about this?’ Her answer: ‘No, I just like to know things.’ What better response could we hope for from any student, current or future?”

After living in Oxford for 15 tears, many UM memories feel particularly poignant for Santiago this spring.

“However cheesy it is, I love everything about Ole Miss,” she said. “I tried to fight it for so long, but I just love it.”

Santiago is happy to share her school pride with her partner, Brown, and their friends and family, whether tailgating in the Grove during football season or cheering at women’s basketball games. When the Rebels’ baseball team was playing for a national championship in 2022, Santiago and Brown were at The Library on the Square, watching the winning game and cheering with the crowd.

Despite having met in an education course and being in neighboring sororities throughout undergrad, it took 10 years for Santiago to muster the courage to invite Brown to join her for a trip to a music festival in Kentucky. Now, they are engaged.

“We get to rewrite our previous college life by doing this together,” Santiago said. “Doing silly things we didn’t get to do as students together, but now we get to do them as grown-up students.”