First-generation college student's nonprofit helps heal undocumented immigrants
ASU alum Reyna Montoya went on to create Aliento Education Fund
Last month, Arizona State University honored the accomplishments and commitment of ASU’s Hispanic students pursuing higher education during the Hispanic Convocation. Reyna E. Montoya, founder and CEO of Aliento, was chosen to address graduates as the keynote speaker.
Montoya graduated from ASU in 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts in political science and Bachelor of Arts in transborder studies, as well as a minor in dance. She is also a graduate of Grand Canyon University and Harvard University’s Kennedy School, where she earned a certificate in the Exponential Fundraising Program.
Born in Tijuana, Mexico, Montoya and her family migrated to Arizona when she was young in order to flee violence. As a sophomore in high school living in Mesa, she was in awe of ASU and knew that was where she wanted to pursue a college education.
“It was difficult navigating the process of applying to college as undocumented and a first-generation college student,” Montoya said.
However, attending ASU affected her life in many positive ways.
During college, Montoya was able to find her voice. She remembers participating in class discussions where her peers would discuss the top news stories, specifically the focus around immigration and showing your papers.
“It was a strange situation to be in,” Montoya saod. “My peers were debating immigration, but they did not realize they were talking about me and experiences I’d had.”
The classroom discussions could have weighed on some, but for Montoya, she took it as an opportunity to learn the opinions and viewpoints of fellow classmates.
“At ASU, I felt I had the support of educators and peers who cared about me,” she said. “I was able to navigate a complex, changing world and stay grounded while I was becoming the person I am today.”
In 2016, after working as a classroom educator, Montoya created the Aliento Education Fund, a nonprofit leadership organization that serves undocumented, DACA and mixed-immigration-status families to transform trauma into hope and action.
Montoya describes Aliento as part of her own journey as a dreamer in Arizona.
“Schools weren’t there to support people like me who had to survive the trauma of separation and deportation,” she said. “Every day, I was unsure if I would be deported from the place I call home.”
When her own father was going through the deportation process, she was lonely, fearful and angry, yet no one focused on the well-being of the children. She saw a gap between people leading the change and people who were being impacted by immigration issues. Through her personal experience and guidance from a mentor who suggested she follow her passion, she was encouraged to create her own organization.
Montoya’s work through Aliento and other organizations has contributed toward the well-being of undocumented and mixed-status immigrants. With the help of her community, she stopped the deportation of her father and, in the same year, helped prevent the deportation of a bus full of undocumented immigrants in Phoenix, a first in American history.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be running a nonprofit as an undocumented immigrant,” Montoya said.
Her entrepreneurship, leadership and dedication to her community has led to her receiving numerous accolades including the Forbes 30 Under 30, Univisión 15 Latinas Changing the World, the Phoenix Chamber ATHENA Award and the Humanitarian Recipient Award for Spirtuality by the Muhammed Ali Center.
At ASU’s Hispanic Convocation ceremony, Montoya shared words of encouragement with graduates.
“It has been a very difficult moment for society reflecting on the pandemic — there has been a lot of grief and pain,” she said. “We have seen both the best and worst in people. As you graduate and continue to celebrate this milestone, I hope you don’t forget that everyone has a unique light to share. Our skills, experiences and relationships form who we are. We have the choice to be a light in the darkness.”