When asked to describe her experience as a first-generation Spartan, aspiring STEM educator Estefania Montiel, ’24 Liberal Studies, refers first to “Breathe,” her favorite song from Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical “In the Heights.”
The song, performed by Nina, a first-generation college student home in New York after dropping out of Stanford, captures the mixed emotions of a bittersweet homecoming — how after a lifetime of striving to “get out,” the combined stress of financial instability and impostor syndrome can make coming home even harder.
“She reciprocates all my feelings,” said Montiel. “She’s the first to go to college. Her community is always cheering her on. But for many of us, in a whole new place, in a whole new environment, it’s very easy for things to get dark if you don’t have a community.”
Like Nina, Montiel learned to create — and rely on — a support system. She has actively created community during her time at San José State and excelled in the classroom and beyond. In addition to acting as academic co-chair of Hermanx de SJSU during 2022-2023, an association that brings together Latinx/Chicanx students, she has served as a supplemental instructor with Peer Connections. Montiel will be recognized for her talent, diligence and zeal with the 2023 CSU Trustee Award — the California State University’s highest accolade for student accomplishment.
She will be honored along with the other 22 Trustee Scholars, one chosen from each CSU campus, during a ceremony at the September CSU Board of Trustees meeting. Montiel will receive a $7,000 scholarship* for the 2023–24 academic year, which is supported by Trustee Emeritus William Hauck and Padget Kaiser.
“The life stories of these extraordinary students who have triumphed over personal hardships to stand among the university system’s most distinguished scholars are a testament to the transformative power of public higher education,” said CSU Interim Chancellor Jolene Koester. “Through donor support, the CSU is able to provide students who have faced educational barriers the opportunity to pursue a college degree and apply their life experiences and classroom knowledge to elevate their communities and our great state.”
Emphasizing “Empathy” in STEM
Raised by a single mother in Soledad, California, Montiel graduated from high school in spring 2020 — the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though online learning made her SJSU experience a little more affordable, when she moved to San José in 2021 eager to take advantage of all the university had to offer, she was startled to discover how challenging it was to navigate the world of higher education in person. Whether she was grappling with tough courses or juggling competing financial obligations, Montiel kept her eyes laser focused on a singular goal: how she could use her degree to revolutionize STEM education.
Montiel plans to pursue graduate work in education, hopefully at SJSU, with the ultimate goal of teaching STEM educators how to create inclusive and empathic curricula. She is grateful for the support of the CSU Trustee Award to help her get one step closer to the future she imagines.
“My goal is to become a STEM professional and let my students feel validated and heard,” Montiel wrote in her scholarship letter. “Just because STEM education has always been rigorous does not mean that it cannot also emphasize social-emotional learning. Students can both learn the concepts and develop as human beings at the same time. As educators, we have to be more than just the subjects we teach.”
Montiel credits her Hermanx de SJSU colleagues and faculty mentors Scott Phillabaum, associate professor of linguistics, and Erica Colmenares, assistant professor of humanities and coordinator of the Liberal Studies Teacher Preparation program, with showing her how to combine academic expertise with empathy and compassion.
“Estefania has navigated life as a first-generation college student mostly on her own, discovering resources, fully supporting herself economically, while still finding time to serve others,” said Phillabaum. “She sees not only her own situation clearly, but she sees the situations of others, too, and looks for ways to support and improve those situations. She is an inspiration to both her professional and academic communities and to students from similar underrepresented minority groups like her.”
“Ever since I met Estefania in LSTP 10 during her first year at SJSU, I knew she was destined for greatness,” said Colmenares. “Her soul is filled with kindness and compassion for others. Her energy and enthusiasm — for teaching! For biology! For students! For everything, really! — is unparalleled. But perhaps most importantly, she is a champion for educational equity and access. I can easily see her becoming a university professor where she transfers her passion for science and learning to countless generations.”
When Montiel flies to Long Beach to attend the award ceremony in September, it will be her first time on an airplane. “My sister says it’s like getting on a roller coaster,” she said, excitement palpable on her face. “I’ve just got to remember to breathe.”
Meet the 2023 CSU Trustee Scholars.
*The award and scholarships are made possible by founding leaders from the William Randolph Hearst Foundation and Trustee Emeritus Ali C. Raz; in partnership with CSU Trustees, CSU Foundation board members and private donors.