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High School Equivalency Program and Laboratory “Returning Student” Scholarship Support a Young Man’s Career Goals in Counseling

Joaquin Montano is the office manger at the UNM-Toas, Rio Arriba County High School Equivalency Program that assisted him with completing his GED. Supported by a Laboratory Scholarship, he is pursuing a degree in Integrative Studies at Northern New Mexico College and works with other migrant and seasonal farm workers to better themselves through education. (Photo: LANL Foundation, Andrea Multari)

June, 2016 – Joaquin Montaño has always known the value of hard work. Growing up in Santa Cruz, NM, 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 newfound 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% 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 LANL Foundation. As of 2016, 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 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 Lab may also be made year round through the LANL Foundation.

For more information about the scholarship program, or for questions about making annual donations and planned gifts contact Tony Fox, Vice President of Institutional Advancement & Scholarships at tony@lanlfoundation.org or 505.753-8890.

2016 Gold Scholars Solomon Sindelar, Arasely Rodriguez, and Katherine Wang

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