Estefania Montanez finished high school with an uncertain future. Her undocumented status, mother’s health and financial struggles seemed to stand in the way of her future. Now, she is graduating UNM with a degree in psychology and a full-ride scholarship for medical school, with a goal to reshape the healthcare system.
As an undocumented student, Montanez’ challenges started before she had even started taking classes at UNM.
“A lot of the scholarships I would apply for I would get because of my good grades,” she said. “But I couldn’t receive the money because of my undocumented status.”
Montanez said initially she planned on self-funding her education, but through opportunities provided under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals legislation, she was able to receive UNM scholarships.
The Obama-era immigration policy allowed Montanez to receive a work permit and, consequently, a social security number. From there, she was eligible to receive scholarship money and was awarded the UNM Presidential Scholarship.
After enrolling at the University, she took between 18 and 21 credit hours each semester while working 20 hours a week.
“I felt really privileged to be able to do all that stuff,” Montanez said. “That’s what kept me going even though it was a lot of work.”
School, work and her documentation status were not the only barriers for Montanez. She was also advocating for her mother’s health.
During her junior year of high school, her mother was diagnosed with cancer, and the time Montanez spent navigating the healthcare system inspired her to pursue medicine.
“Having to advocate for my mom made me realize how impossible it is for people from the undocumented community to navigate the system,” Montanez said.
While advocating for her mother, she found that language and education barriers, lack of access to insurance and low job security often stand in the way of good healthcare.
That’s something Montanez is out to change.
She wants to earn her MD in internal medicine and a Masters of public health through the UNM Medical School, because the intersection of health and community is critical to fixing institutional barriers, she said.
“I want to practice the idea of community,” Montanez said of her career ambitions. “I want to do work for all those who will come behind me. Every scholarship I’ve had is a testament to the hard work of the community and the Dreamers that went before me.”
Many groups have helped her along the path to graduation. One such group was the UNM Dream Team, a student organization that supports and advocates for undocumented and immigrant students. The organization and its resources helped keep Montanez motivated, she said.
The rising community leader gave simple advice to students who face similar challenges: “I did this, and you can too.”
She also emphasized that students should not be too hard on themselves if they don’t have perfect grades or if they feel they are behind in their academic journey.
“I would encourage them to take pride in their narrative: to not give up, and to make some time for themselves and the people they love,” she said.
Brendon Gray is a news reporter for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @notgraybrendon.