Graduating from college and having a successful career seemed like a distant dream for Enrique Montiel, who spent most of his life in foster care. With the help of the Renaissance Scholars program at Cal Poly Pomona, Montiel was able to earn his bachelor’s degree and become a model of success for other foster youth.
From age 9, Montiel lived in various foster homes – 11 in all – from Whittier to Palmdale to Fontana. He was taken away from his parents in Compton because of their heavy drinking. He and his four siblings, three brothers and one sister, were split among various foster homes during their childhood and teen years.
After his parents died, Montiel, the second oldest, rebelled, was arrested a few times and became involved with drugs and alcohol. In high school, however, he realized what he wanted and needed to accomplish. “My brothers said they didn’t want to do foster care anymore. I felt like I had to take the initiative, finish high school and go to college,” Montiel says.
When he arrived at Cal Poly Pomona in 2002, Montiel, now 24, joined Renaissance Scholars, an academic support group that helps former foster youth on campus. Not only did the program offer financial assistance and tutoring, but it also provided support and encouragement.
“Going to college can be intimidating, especially for foster children. The program helped me complete my classes and graduate. It kept me on track,” he says. In particular, he credits Koji Uesugi, then coordinator of Renaissance Scholars, and Maria Ruiz, an advisor in the Educational Opportunity Program, with taking a genuine interest in his life and helping him through college.
Uesugi, now the interim executive director of Student Support & Equity Programs, was greatly impressed by Montiel’s motivation and determination to graduate.
|Enrique Montiel receives his scholarship from President J. Michael Ortiz during the Renaissance Scholars Advisory Board Installation and Scholarship Awards Dinner.
“With Enrique, the responsibility for his family weighed heavily on him, and he wanted to graduate,” Uesegi says. “At times, there were personal challenges. I listened and tried to offer any support and advice that I could.”
Many former foster youth share Montiel’s resilience. Without parental or familial support, they live independently and have developed a will to succeed on their own. Still, it helps to have a support program to assist them.
Launched in 2002, Renaissance Scholars celebrates the achievements and aspirations of motivated and talented students who come from the foster care system. The program encourages them in their academic and personal pursuits, providing financial assistance, mentorship and other services. In the past year, three Renaissance Scholars have graduated from Cal Poly Pomona and seven new freshmen joined the program, which now includes 37 students.
Montiel graduated in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and became a social worker for Nuevo Amanecer Latino Children’s Services in Los Angeles, the foster care agency that managed his case. Recently, he earned a master’s degree in psychology from Santa Ana-based California Coast University.
In the past year, Montiel achieved his goal of reuniting with his family. However, the family reunion didn’t come easily. For half a year, Montiel fought with the foster care system, which was reluctant to accept him as a caretaker of his two younger siblings because of his young age. Demonstrating his tenacity and maturity, Montiel didn’t give up. Who better to take care of his younger siblings than himself – a loving older brother with a college degree and a job as a foster care social worker?
Today, four of the five Montiels live in a house Enrique purchased in Whittier. His older brother, Javier, studies graphic design at Pasadena City College. Nineteen-year-old Magdalena, a high school senior, wants to be a nurse. And their youngest brother, Ramiro, is a sophomore in high school. Another brother, Rufino, has a mental disability and lives in a special-needs home.
A parent and a brother, Montiel helps his younger siblings with homework, enforces curfew, cooks dinner and gives relationship advice. Of course, education is a popular topic, and the message is the same one he gives to his foster care charges.
“Don’t be mad and angry about your life. Make something of your life,” he tells them. “Education is important, especially going to college.”
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