Redemption through education
As South Texas College recently held its inaugural ceremony for GED graduates, Starr County Campus Administrator Dr. Arturo Montiel talks about his own path through higher education.
South Texas College Starr County Campus Administrator Arturo Montiel, Ph.D., looks back on his early experience struggling though school, becoming a high school dropout and creating his own path in higher education.
Montiel said he recently began reflecting on his own educational journey when he attended STC’s inaugural ceremony for General Educational Diploma (GED) program graduates over the summer.
“I relate to these students because I dropped out of school and never completed tenth grade. It seems like the only subjects I had success in were wood shop and driver’s education,” Montiel said. “I was expelled from my local Alternative Education Program, placed in a local juvenile detention center and compiled a long rap sheet from the Corpus Christi Police Department. I was in a bad place. Not many know my story.”
The family’s roots
The second-generation Hispanic was born in Laredo, the youngest of 10 children. His grandparents emigrated from Mexico in the early 1900s with no education, but an extraordinary work ethic, he said.
Participants of the Bracero Act of 1931, which allowed Mexicans to enter the United States for seasonal farm labor, his family members began looking for work away from agriculture when the market became competitive.
“I remember that it was impossible for my father to earn a sustainable wage to support a family of 10 children so it was necessary for my parents to seek job opportunities away from Laredo,” Montiel said. “Against impossible odds, my father hitchhiked to Dallas where there was less competition and when he arrived, he walked into a truck terminal and asked in a thick Spanish accent, ‘I am hungry, do you have any work?’ He became a successful truck driver.”
Struggling through school
It was in Corpus at an all-white school where Montiel started struggling in his education and where he recalls being asked to identify his ethnicity by standing up in a daily mandatory ethnic minority count. He said he remembers the intimidation from teachers, being told he was a slow learner and being placed in a speech-improvement class, although he didn’t have a speech problem.
It was also often necessary for him to work in the school cafeteria washing dishes in exchange for a free lunch.
“My grades became progressively worse, and the principal’s office became a familiar place. My best guess is I experienced at least 100 instances of school detention, 50 licks through corporal punishment, three suspensions and one expulsion” he said. “I was punished for cutting class, fist fighting, disrespecting teachers, lighting fireworks, stealing, smoking, drugs and cheating. I had many run-ins with the law.”
“I relate to (GED) students because I dropped out of school and never completed tenth grade. It seems like the only subjects I had success in were wood shop and driver’s education. I was expelled from my local Alternative Education Program, placed in a local juvenile detention center and compiled a long rap sheet from the Corpus Christi Police Department. I was in a bad place. Not many know my story.”
A life change
Montiel said it was a final visit with a judge that made him rethink his choices. The judge warned him that a return visit to his courtroom would result in charges as an adult, and the sentence would be the maximum time allowed in the county jail; Montiel’s alternative: enlisting in the U.S. Armed Forces.
“I became a poster Marine, and I was meritoriously promoted on three occasions for conduct, service and excellence. I was also able to receive my GED diploma during my first deployment overseas,” he said. “I chose not to re-enlist at the end of my four-year commitment, and once honorably discharged I enrolled at Del Mar College in Corpus.”
However, college didn’t work out as he expected and it would take nearly a decade for him to return.
College becomes reality
“When I did eventually return to college I was a father, so I decided to specialize in a trade that would allow me to earn high wages so I enrolled in the welding program," said Montiel.
He went on to receive a certificate and eventually an associate degree in Welding from Del Mar.
“Despite the long hours of school and work, while sitting in class smelling like a fabrication shop, my degree allowed me to travel overseas to work on various job sites as a combination welder,” he said. It was there that I saw the white hats, the supervisors, and I wanted to be one of them, so I enrolled at Texas A&M Corpus Christi to begin working on my bachelor’s degree.”
Montiel received his Bachelor of Science in Occupational Education, a master’s degree and finally a doctorate degree in Occupational and Adult Education from Oklahoma State University-Stillwater.
“I am the only sibling who did not finish high school, but I am also the only sibling with a doctoral degree,” Montiel said. “That’s why I’m here at STC. Considering my background, I feel these are the students that need the most help, the most encouragement and motivation from someone who has had many of the same experiences but who persevered through sheer resiliency and persistence.”
Upon completion of graduate school in 2001 Montiel said he searched for employment where his education and training would best serve the region and population from which he came.
He was able to find a faculty position in the College Success Department at STC and now 20 years later, he oversees everything from financial and facilities management, student activities, student services, community outreach, enrollment management and security as the Starr County campus administrator.
“Nearly all of my family, close friends and former coworkers who knew of my past struggles in public education commented that I was the last person they ever expected to be teaching or even employed at an institution of higher education,” Montiel said. “South Texas College had a good mix of occupational and academic programs and although I had no experience in higher education, I fit in. My love for helping students has only grown since the first day I arrived.”