Joaquin Montaño has always known the value of hard work. Growing up in Santa Cruz, N.M., he and his siblings lived with the rule that the family and ranch come first. Joaquin helped plant and harvest crops and tend to horses, cows, pigs and chickens. Meeting all of these demands sometimes meant missing school.
In addition to his responsibilities on the family ranch, Joaquin took on a full-time job to help his single mom pay bills. By senior year in high school he was behind in his classes and uninspired.
“I dropped out,” he said. “College isn’t something that is expected of you when you come from a low-income family.”
Joaquin’s desire for new challenges and greater opportunity didn’t keep him away from education for long. He heard about the University of New Mexico–Taos, High School Equivalency Program (HEP) with an office in Rio Arriba County, and knew it was the right fit.
Unlike other GED programs, UNM-Taos HEP is federally funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Migrant Education. The program is designed to meet the needs of migrant and seasonal farm workers and their children by helping them obtain the equivalence of a high school diploma. The program also offers support for its graduates to gain employment or pursue further education at a college, university, vocational or technical school, or training program.
Joaquin was a star HEP student from the beginning. But it wasn’t enough for him to succeed on his own.
“I used my time to help others who were struggling in the program, and that was very rewarding,” he said.
Joaquin was one of the first to graduate from the Rio Arriba program and achieved high scores in science and writing. After earning his GED, he gave back by tutoring and mentoring HEP students. He also sought to turn his caring nature into a career as a nurse.
He diligently saved for his college education, but the funds still came up short. It was a $1,000 Regional College/Returning Student award from the Los Employees’ Scholarship Fund that allowed him to begin taking classes toward an associate’s degree at Northern New Mexico College.
“I never saw myself going to college. The tuition is really high, especially for us in the Valley,” he said. “Without the scholarship, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it.”
Working with HEP students and a new found interest in psychology, Joaquin changed his major and is now working toward a bachelor’s degree in Integrative Studies at Northern.
“I love working with people and was inspired by a professor to switch to the IS program. It includes different counseling techniques and honors different cultures.”
Joaquin was promoted to HEP office manger and continues to contribute to the program’s growth and impressive 85 percent success rate. In the 2015-2016 school year, 47 students graduated with a GED and transitioned to post secondary schools.
Managing the office and going to school fulltime are a challenge, but Joaquin makes it a priority to stay connected with his students. When he called one student to ask why he hadn’t been to class, the grandmother said the young man needed to finish planting before returning to school. So, Joaquin went to the house to help them with the work.
“We live in such a small community, and we’re all connected. I’ve been in their shoes. If I can do it, I know they can, too,” he said. “One hundred percent of my job is to keep students encouraged.”
When Joaquin feels overwhelmed, he chooses to refocus on his goals by remembering his mother’s wisdom, “failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” He is encouraged and supported and looks forward to earning his degree to council others or perhaps one day run the same program that help him turn his life around.
About the Los Alamos Employees’ Scholarship Fund
The Los Alamos Employees’ Scholarship Fund program began in 1998 and is administered for the Laboratory by the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation. Since its inception, more than 1,100 scholarships have been awarded totaling $5.5 million to students in the Northern New Mexico counties of Los Alamos, Mora, Rio Arriba, San Miguel, Sandoval, Santa Fe and Taos. Laboratory employees have donated $3.7 million to the fund.
The Los Alamos Employees’ Scholarship Fund encourages Los Alamos National Laboratory employees, retirees and subcontractor personnel to donate to a fund that awards college scholarships to Northern New Mexico students. Contributions from businesses and individuals outside the Laboratory may also be made at www.lanlfoundation.org.
The Laboratory’s 2016 scholarship drive continues through June 30. Pledges will fund scholarships in 2017 and continue to build the endowment for a sustainable program.
About Los Alamos National Laboratory (www.lanl.gov)
Los Alamos National Laboratory, a multidisciplinary research institution engaged in strategic science on behalf of national security, is operated by Los Alamos National Security, LLC, a team composed of Bechtel National, the University of California, BWXT Government Group, and URS, an AECOM company, for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.
Los Alamos enhances national security by ensuring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, developing technologies to reduce threats from weapons of mass destruction, and solving problems related to energy, environment, infrastructure, health and global security concerns.
About the LANL Foundation (www.lanlfoundation.org.)
Since 1997, the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, has worked to inspire excellence in education and learning in Northern New Mexico through innovative programming, collaboration and advocacy. By investing in human potential, the Foundation’s vision is that all New Mexicans have the skills and confidence they need to be self-sufficient, lifelong learners who are engaged in their communities. Programs in early childhood education, STEM inquiry learning, scholarships and small grants serve Northern New Mexico communities primarily in Los Alamos, Mora, Rio Arriba, San Miguel, Sandoval, Santa Fe and Taos counties.