University of Mary Graduate Mary Montoya Earns North Dakota’s Prestigious TRIO Achiever Award

Mary Montoya received the Trio Award

BISMARCK, ND — Mary Montoya remembers her first days of college and campus life in 2015 at the University of Mary, as if it were yesterday. The Parker, CO, native was hundreds of miles away from home, she only knew her sister (Alex) who was a junior at Mary — along with Alex’s boyfriend (Isaac), and oh yeah, plenty of classes to go to and homework to get done. Overwhelmed would be an understatement as her mind became full of anxiety. 

“My first week of college was a whirlwind of emotions, but I remember my first humanities class, now called First Year Experience (FYE) with Brenda Nottestad,” recalled Montoya. “She had us write on a notecard some information about ourselves and if there was anything that we thought would be important for her to know. I informed her of some of my struggles with anxiety. After class, she asked me to stay for a minute and talk to her. She asked if I had ever heard of the TRIO program, and I told her I had not. She took me to the Student Success Center and helped me fill out an application. That is when my TRIO journey began. I had a few different advisors throughout my undergraduate years, but by the end of my sophomore year, Maureen Larson became my TRIO advisor. She was there for me through all the ups and downs — from switching my major several times and explaining that getting in trouble was not the end of the world, to helping me stay on track and making sure I went to class. She encouraged me to become the best person I could be and to stay focused on the goal, which was graduation. If it was not for the TRIO program, especially Maureen and Brenda, I can honestly say I do not think I would have graduated. They believed in me when I did not believe in myself.”

Those life-changing experiences are what led Montoya to become a full-time TRIO advisor at the University of Mary, not long after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in communication and public affairs. In just under two years, Montoya quickly put her past TRIO experiences as a student to practice as an advisor. Her stellar efforts recently earned her the prestigious 2022 Achiever Award from the North Dakota Aspire TRIO chapter for significant civic, community, and professional contributions.

“I was honored and speechless, which doesn’t happen often,” Montoya recalled when she learned of winning the award. “I am so lucky to work with incredible individuals in the Student Success Center as well as in the University of Mary community. My first phone call was to my mom and dad to let them know. They instilled in me the importance of working hard and never giving up. I have never been academically oriented. From a young age, my mom used to always say, ‘we just need to get her through school because once she is in the workforce, she is going to do amazing things.’”

And now her students are benefiting from those amazing things. The rigors of college can get overwhelming at times, especially when a student attends the many fun activities and sporting events and participates in all the extracurriculars the University of Mary has to offer throughout each week. Montoya experienced them too, which helps her relate to her advisees. 

“My favorite part of my job is my students,” said Montoya. “I can honestly say that I love coming to work each day because of them. When I started this position, the one thing I told myself was that I needed to be there for them and be their biggest support. I love that! When they do well on a test, I am the first person they are running to tell, or if they get into trouble, they come right into my office and trust that I am going to help them in any way that I can. In my opinion, my strongest trait in my job is that I was not a perfect student, and I made many mistakes. When my students come in because they have missed too many classes, I tell them not to worry, I did, too. You are on academic warning — I was as well. You got into trouble with student development; me, too. I explain to them that if I made it through, so can they, and I will be there every step of the way. It is the little things that make the biggest difference in the students’ lives. I do my best to attend their sporting events, plays, music recitals, and everything they tell me about. There is a reason that my students trust me with their academic and personal successes and struggles. I receive so much joy working with each one of my students. Seeing them graduate and develop into amazing human beings is all that I can ask for.”

Not only did Montoya have TRIO as a support system as a student, but she also relied on the caring campus community, her strong Catholic faith, along with the Christian and Benedictine values instilled by all faculty and staff at the University of Mary.

“A Catholic education was essential for me when deciding on a college,” added Montoya. “My faith is one of the most important things to me and influences me every day. My parents sent me and my three siblings through Catholic school from kindergarten through high school. While my sister was attending the University of Mary at the time, I was set on attending Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas; but the moment I stepped foot onto the University of Mary’s campus, I knew that this was the place that I was going to spend my undergraduate career. I remember seeing Benet Chapel on my tour and knowing I was going to be spending a lot of time on campus — it is still one of my favorite places on campus. Attending Adoration and Exultate, I know that God was there, through tough times. I would be lying to myself if I said my faith didn’t waver during the tough times. I still went to church every Sunday because it was something that I was conditioned to do, but I was not attending for the right reason. I remember going to confession one night on campus and having a long talk with one of the priests. He explained to me that, even though I was struggling in my faith, God had never once left my side, and he stated that I must know that because, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t continue to go to Mass. Embracing the Catholic identity that the university upholds was so important to my growth as a person and to help me through the tough times.”

And now Montoya helps others through the tough times while she currently works on earning a master’s degree in higher education in student affairs.

About the University of Mary: True to its motto “lumen vitae” — The Light of Life — the University of Mary offers education for the whole of life through cutting-edge professional programs and graduate programs animated by moral courage and leadership in chosen professions and service to the community. A private, co-educational Catholic institution, the University of Mary welcomes students of all faiths and backgrounds.

A Christian, Catholic, Benedictine institution founded in 1959 by the Benedictine Sisters of Annunciation Monastery, Mary offers nearly 60 bachelor’s, 15 master’s, and five doctoral programs — in business administration, education, nursing practice, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. The 19-sport Athletic Department adheres to its Greatness Through Virtue mission under the governance of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) conferences. With more than 3,800 students, Mary has locations in North Dakota, Montana, Arizona, and Rome, Italy, as well as vibrant online offerings.

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