When Nayeli Montano earns her doctoral degree next year, she will have traveled much farther than the 200 miles between Samuel Merritt University and where she grew up in California’s Central Valley.
The oldest daughter of agricultural workers, Montano was raised in a small town where the majority of high school students come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Her parents would take Montano and her sisters to the farms and fruit-packing facilities where they worked and warn them that they would end up taking jobs there if they didn’t do well in school.
“That was all they knew and it was their way of motivating us,” she says.
Montano’s journey to higher education also was propelled by a sixth-grade teacher who saw her academic potential and recommended her for AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a program designed to prepare promising students for college and career success. Teachers supported and advised Montano and the program’s other students through middle and high school, and took them on college field trips during their senior year.
“I really owe so much to that program,” says Montano, who became the first in her family to attend college when she enrolled at Santa Clara University. There, she was accepted into a scholarship program for underrepresented students that offered her a community similar to the one she had back home.
While she learned a lot majoring in communications and Spanish, her undergraduate years did not reveal a career path to Montano and left her saddled with student loan debt.
“It felt great to go to college and accomplish so much, but I still worried about how I was going to help my family and make their sacrifices worth it,” she says.
After graduation, Montano took a job as a project coordinator for a translation company in San Jose but found it unfulfilling. Fearing she’d lose momentum if she returned to her hometown, she attended a job fair where she was introduced to the profession of occupational therapy.
“The more I read about it, the more I fell in love with it because it seemed to define all that I was,” she says. “That’s when I finally found my voice and followed it.”
Now a second-year student in Samuel Merritt University’s Doctor of Occupational Therapy program, Montano says she is confident she chose the right profession.
“I like that it’s so diverse as far as the populations you can work with and that there’s a creative side to it when it comes to getting to know clients and figuring out how you can help them adapt,” she says.
Montano hopes to specialize in hand therapy to help people like her parents who depend on their hands for their livelihoods. Her mother, who packs peaches, plums and nectarines, suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome.
“Manual laborers view their bodies as tools and sacrifice safety and body mechanics,” she says. “I want to give them tips to help prevent future injuries.”
(Photo caption: Nayeli Montano's family and friends visiting SMU)