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Joaquin Montaño

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

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 at home, Joaquin took on a full-time job to help his single mom pay bills. By senior year at Española Valley 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. It sounded like the right fit.

I never saw myself going to college. The tuition is really high, especially for us in the Valley. Without the scholarship, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it.

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 was 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 offered 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 in 2015 and achieved high scores in science and writing. After earning his GED, he was hired by the program to tutor and mentor students. He also sought to turn his caring nature into a career as a nurse.

After diligently saving for his college education, the funds still came up short. It was a $1,000 Regional College/Returning Student award from the Los Employees’ Scholarship Fund that allowed Joaquin to begin taking classes at Northern New Mexico College toward an associate’s degree.

“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 crops 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.