Teen Mom Overcomes Odds to Graduate College 20 Years Later

  • Silhouette of female student

    After 20 years, a teenage pregnancy, finding out she was undocumented and not being to start college, Cecilia Montes will be receiving her bachelor's of science in Public Health at CSUN's 2018 Commencement. She is pictured in this manner so as to protect her identity. Photo by Lee Choo.

“‘Pregnancy could be a bad influence on other students.’”

It was 1998, but Cecilia Montes remembers her high school principal telling her that as if it were yesterday. She was kicked out of her high school for being pregnant during her senior year. Instead of dropping out, she decided to take three buses to get to her new school, during her second and third trimesters.

After having her baby, Montes did not drop out of school. Instead, she finished the spring semester, boarding each bus to school and back home with a backpack full of books, a diaper bag on her shoulder and a newborn baby in her arms. During school, she held the baby while she completed classwork.

She finished her senior year and graduated high school, becoming the first person in her family to do so in four generations. Montes next set her sights on a bachelor’s degree only to find that she couldn’t afford college because she’d have to pay international fees due to her immigration status as an undocumented student.

I was so devastated that I couldn’t go to college. I couldn’t go right from high school into college like everyone else I knew,” Montes said (CSUN Today is using a pseudonym; citing privacy concerns, she requested her real name not be used). “I was already feeling excluded because I was a teenage mom. Then I couldn’t go to college with everyone else.”

Over the last 20 years, Montes has faced many obstacles — but she was determined not to let those challenges deter her from obtaining her bachelor’s degree. Montes has achieved her goal and will be crossing the stage on Monday, May 21 as a Public Health graduate at California State University, Northridge’s 2018 Commencement. She also has been accepted into CSUN’s Master’s of Public Health program and will begin working toward that degree in the fall.

“I do not easily give up,” she wrote in her statement of purpose for CSUN’s Master’s of Public Health program. “Most would think that hindrances like these leave a person with no hope, but I persisted, and nothing stood in the way of my desire to learn and enact change.”

As one of an estimated 1,700 undocumented students at CSUN, Montes wanted to share her story with fellow Dreamers because she wanted them to “know that they can still do things.”

“You can find avenues to continue being resilient and have hope that something is going to change,” she said. “And when that change happens, you’re prepared and have all the tools, skills and knowledge to continue moving forward.”

Never Give Up
Though she was devastated that she could not matriculate to college right after high school, she could not give up, she said. Montes knew she had to provide for herself and her daughter, so she pursued another avenue.

She enrolled at an occupational program in Orange County and completed her certification as a nurse’s assistant (CNA), but the certification was taken away once the program found out Montes was undocumented.

Montes took the training and knowledge she acquired and worked at an Alzheimer’s disease hospital in Anaheim, where she said she learned one of the most valuable lessons of her life.

During her time as a CNA, Montes learned that she had a passion for helping others and wanted to dedicate herself to that cause.

“My desire to help doesn’t end due to my barriers,” Montes said. “I hope to inspire and impact others in a positive way. I will continue to volunteer.  The more I learn, the better I can serve.”

Montes’ mom and two younger brothers moved in with her when she was 22, making Montes the head of household. She continued to work so that she could support herself, her daughter, her mother and her two younger brothers.

“I was very lucky that I always had jobs that paid enough so that we weren’t completely broke,” Montes said. “I wasn’t well off, and couldn’t afford luxuries, but I could support my family.”

Though she was content as a CNA, Montes said she still longed for a college education.

Then, in 2001, Governor Gray Davis signed California Assembly Bill 540, a bill allowing undocumented students meeting certain requirements to pay in-state tuition at state institutions. Though AB 540 was a huge weight off Montes’ shoulders, as a single mom working full time, she could still only afford one class at a time.

College Bound
It wasn’t until 10 years later that Montes could go to school full time, which was made possible by the Dream Act, a California law allowing California AB540-eligible students to apply for state financial aid.

With the help of her counselor at Moorpark College, Danita Redd, Montes began meeting the requirements to major in nursing.

“[Professor Redd] has been my pillar,“ Montes said. “This woman writes letters for me, no questions asked. She goes above and beyond. She knows my husband and my daughters. She’s just wonderful.”

Redd said she is in awe of Montes’ benevolence.

“I have to emphasize that she is one of the kindest people I have ever met,” Redd said. “The quality of kindness in her bubbles up from the very core of her being. I admire her. I always have.”

In pursuing nursing, Montes would find yet another closed door. Her immigration status meant she couldn’t enroll in the program, meaning she had to change her path again.

Refusing to quit, Montes changed her major to Nutrition, Dietetics and Food Science  — as that was still health related — and transferred to CSUN in fall 2016.

But when meeting with Mario Lopez, an Educational Opportunity Programs (EOP) counselor at CSUN, she discovered she would have to change her major again because of internship requirements. Lopez suggested Public Health because all of Montes’ classes fit. She hasn’t looked back since.

Support from CSUN
Montes is grateful for the endless support she has received from CSUN faculty.

“I have not met any professor here who has not opened their arms widely and supported me. That’s why I’m staying here,” she said, referring to starting her Master’s in Public Health program at CSUN in the fall.

“CSUN has been very good to me,” Montes said. “My professors have inspired me, and they have encouraged me every step of the way.”

Professor of Health Sciences Jeffrey Goodman has been particularly instrumental in her educational journey, Montes said, as he was her mentor when she applied to the master’s program at CSUN.

Montes has also used resources extensively on campus, such as the DREAM Center. Her work with Dario Fernandez, coordinator for the DREAM Center, helped provide an easy transition into CSUN.

Fernandez said that Montes’s story is inspirational and a great example for all students.

“[Cecilia’s] educational journey is inherently one of perseverance and inspiration,” he said. “This spring semester, [she] will culminate a 20-year pursuit of her bachelor’s degree.

“Her tenacity, will and perseverance is second to none. As an undocumented student, the prospective opportunity to seek employment post-graduation is always in question. Still, she persisted.”

Montes is proud of herself for achieving her goals, and said that she has no plans of stopping at her master’s.

“I want to stay [at CSUN] for my doctorate in education and hopefully I can work here and stay here forever,” she said, laughing.

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