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This article appeared in the Aug. 28, 2018, issue of the student newsletter.
Confidence — or the lack thereof — was an issue for Andrea Montes for a long time.
Take your pick on what took her confidence from her: Not knowing how to speak English and getting made fun of when she moved to the United States from Honduras at 12 years old, dropping out of school after eighth grade and getting pregnant, being in an abusive relationship that left her depressed. It all added up to over a decade of tough times and left Andrea, now the mother of three children, in a bad place.
“I was depressed for, like, three months. I couldn't get out of my room," she said. “I just didn't want to. And I'm the type of person who keeps my house clean and my food cooked, but I couldn't do it anymore.”
To get herself out of that depression, Andrea turned to her faith. It turned her life around.
“I'm Christian and I prayed a lot. I wasn't connecting with God anymore because I was ashamed. But then, I started to again,” she said. “And something inside told me, and I'm sure it was God, 'It's time for you to go back to school.' And I remember during that time in my struggle, I told God, 'But I don't have papers.'”
Two days later, President Barack Obama approved Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA. DACA offers young, undocumented immigrants a work permit to stay in the U.S. and protects them from deportation.
“I felt like God had answered my prayers. So I told myself, 'OK, God, if this is what you want me to do, then I'll try it out.' And I started going to school,” she said. “And one day I went out to eat, and it sounds silly, but I went to eat Chinese food, and I got this cookie that said, 'Nothing is impossible to a willing heart.' And I felt like that was another sign.”
Andrea moved to West Palm Beach, Fla., to live with her mom, who had already been in the States for a while, when she was 12 years old.
“It was challenging,” she said of living with her mom. “I had never met her before, and she did support me, but I had never seen her. So that was difficult for me. I was expecting something different, and it was not what I was hoping for. Not that she was a bad mom or anything; it's just that it was different.”
It was difficult enough that Andrea moved to Dallas to live with other family members. She lived with an uncle for a while before moving in with an aunt. And then, as Andrea puts it, life happened when she dropped out after eighth grade, ran away with her boyfriend and had her first child.
That began an almost 15-year journey for Andrea that progressively got worse. Two years into her relationship with her first child's father, they broke up and she met someone else.
“I went through a lot with him. You have no idea how much,” Andrea said. “And I endured it because I thought, well, maybe a) I deserve it or b) this is what a relationship is like. And I'm not just going to be moving on with one guy and then another guy.”
“I don't want that for me or my kids. But it came to the point where I couldn't handle it anymore. And I just knew it was time.”
Since Andrea dropped out after finishing eighth grade, she didn't have the high school diploma or GED that she needed to qualify for DACA. Her main motivation to go back to school was her three kids: 16-year-old Kim, 11-year-old Kristal and seven-year-old Eduardo.
“They were my everything. That was my ticket out of my relationship because I couldn't support myself,” she said. “I could, but I had to understand that I was going to be leading a mediocre life, or I would have to give my kids a life that I didn't want to give them. And I would have had to work two jobs to barely support them.”
“It's not about luxury or anything, but just a decent life.”
Originally, she was going to try to provide that life for her kids by becoming a teacher.
“I started going to school believing that I was going to be a teacher. I thought teaching was what I wanted to do in life," she said. “But there were people in my path who started introducing me to the nursing field, and I fell in love with it.”
A 15-year hiatus, of course, makes for a tough return to school.
“At that time, I didn't know how to write an essay. My teachers would talk, and they gave lectures, and I was lost,” Andrea said. “My teacher would talk about anatomy, and I'd have no idea what was going on. What is this? Are they speaking to me in a different language?”
To work through that, Andrea became a regular at Mountain View's writing center, so much so that her picture hangs on one of the center's walls.
“I was there with one of the people who help out in the writing center. And there was this guy taking pictures,” she said. “I just found out they put that picture on a wall. That should tell you how much time I spent in the writing center.”
Her difficulties that first year at Mountain View didn't stop with English classes, though.
“I took developmental math, and kids were laughing,” she said. “You come to college, and it's full of young kids. I'm happy about that, but when you're an adult and you come here and you see all these young people, and they're laughing at you, it's kind of heartbreaking sometimes. But all of those things really pushed me and made me focus.”
Eventually, Andrea pulled it all together, and things started to get easier. Not easy, per se, but easier. In the spring of 2016, she graduated with her associate degree from Mountain View. It was a milestone for both Andrea and her children.
“I remember when I got my letter saying, congratulations, you're going to be able to graduate,” she said. "I opened it and I started reading it, and I remember I was in my living room. My kids were with me, and my voice just started cracking. I couldn't believe it. It was really happening. Really happening.”
“And I just started crying, and my kids were crying, and we were just hugging.”
One of the professors Andrea credits with helping her turn her life around is Mountain View biology faculty member Debby Sutton.
“When I first met her, she didn't have a lot of confidence,” Debby said. “And she was kind of timid. Very unsure of herself. But I could tell, as with all students, she had a tremendous amount of potential. We just had to tap into that.”
Andrea gravitated toward Debby because of her teaching style.
“She never made me feel dumb, even though I probably had the stupidest questions,” Andrea said, laughing.
She eventually started confiding in Debby in part because Andrea felt like Debby believed in her. So much so that Debby asked Andrea back after she'd finished her class to be a Supplemental Instruction (SI) leader, which allowed Andrea to sit in on Debby's classes and lead students in study groups.
“And boy, Andrea jumped on that right away. And that was another thing that propelled her confidence,” Debby said. “She saw that not only could she be successful, but she could go back and be exposed to the material a second time, and she could help other people. And they loved her.”
Debby and Mountain View microbiology faculty member Margaret Silva also conducted a mock interview with Andrea to help her get ready for her nursing program interview.
Andrea was given the questions beforehand and told to show up as if she were going to an actual interview, dressed for a job interview. She was told to pretend she didn't know Debby and Margaret; they were just random interviewers, and she was trying to gain entry into El Centro's nursing program.
Despite the confidence issues rearing their heads again — Andrea didn't think she'd be accepted — the mock interview proved helpful, and she was accepted into the program.
“So I submitted the application, I went to the interview and when I got the callback, I told the lady, 'Please tell me again,'” she said, laughing. “I'm so serious. 'Please tell me one more time. I can't believe this.' And so I told Ms. Sutton, and she was so ecstatic.”
Debby was not at all surprised that Andrea was accepted.
“I went to her pinning ceremony, and I was as proud of her as I was of any of my four children when they finished,” Debby said. “She's a very special young woman, and I was extremely happy for her because it meant that she is not only going to fulfill her dream, but to take that next step in being able to give her children the life that she wants.”
Part of success is not becoming complacent. Thankfully for Andrea, she didn't have the option, nor the time, to be complacent.
She was dealing with starting a nursing program without any prior health care experience, and she was recently separated from her husband.
“Nursing school is brutal. There's no other way to describe it. Any nursing student you meet will tell you the same thing,” she said. “For me, the first semester was so difficult because the simplest thing they would tell me, I didn't know what it meant. I would ask, 'What is that?' And people were laughing. And I had no idea!”
There was a moment in that first semester when Andrea doubted herself. She failed her first assessment and wondered if she was “smart enough for nursing school.”
“I joined a study group and I prayed, and I got an idea. I said, 'I'm going to treat this like my Supplemental Instruction experience,'” she said. “When I applied what I learned from that time to nursing school, it helped me a lot.”
While she was making her way through the nursing program, she would still stop by to see Debby and update her on what was going on with her life and her studies. That's how Andrea found out about the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) 2018 Student Essay Contest.
The contest lets students write about a faculty member who has had an impact on their life. Andrea wrote about Debby changing both her life and her children's lives and was one of three winners out of more than 200 entries.
For her essay, Andrea won $1,000, and both she and Debby received registration and lodging for NISOD's annual conference and leadership institute in Austin this past May. Andrea also read her essay about Debby at the conference's award dinner.
“I'm pretty sure she knows how much of an impact she's made in my life, but I really wanted to be able to verbalize it in front of people and for her to be honored because she does deserve that,” Andrea said.
For Debby, hearing Andrea read that essay about her was a humbling experience.
“It's very touching to think that somebody would say those things about me,” she said.
Andrea completed the nursing program this past spring, then had to worry about taking the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). She had accepted a job working in the ICU at Methodist Charlton in Dallas in February. All she had to do was pass her licensing exam, and the job was hers.
The NCLEX is 265 questions. The test will shut down after 75 questions if you've done either really well or really poorly. Andrea's shut down after 75.
“I'm freaking out,” she said, laughing, the day after she took it. “I'm thinking, did it shut down because I did so well and they don't want to test me anymore, or did it shut down because I did so poorly and they just want me to go home and study?”
It took a couple of days, but she found out she passed, and she started at Methodist Charlton in July.
She's certainly come a long way from the 27-year-old who wasn't comfortable writing in English and didn't know how to format a research paper.
“This was a young woman who was fairly defeated with a terrible home life, so much responsibility, like the weight of the world was on her shoulders, and no confidence in herself,” Debby said. “To go from that point to now, where she has no limits on what she can accomplish and she's thinking about going beyond, is just really cool.”
Andrea's thinking about enrolling at the University of Texas at Arlington to get her bachelor's degree. Her self confidence shines through now.
“You don't understand how broken I was when I started school,” she said. "I didn't just graduate. I graduated and I earned so much confidence and friends and just — I cannot even put it into words.”