Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2022 year in review.
An Arizona State University student has won the nation’s most prestigious award for undergraduates who are pursuing careers in public service – though he’s been involved in local government for two years already.
Armando Montero, who is pursuing three degrees — political science, economics and math — was elected as the youngest-ever member of the Tempe Union High School District governing board in 2020. Now he's the winner of a Truman Scholarship.
Montero, who is in Barrett, The Honors College and will graduate from ASU in 2023, plans to use the prize money to attend the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and then work for an education nonprofit.
“One of the main reasons I’m going to law school is to continue working in local politics, which I’ve done since I was a sophomore in high school,” he said.
“I still want to serve on the school board and continue working in the community I grew up in.”
Since the beginning of the Truman Scholar program in 1977, ASU has produced 22 Truman Scholars. The most recent winners are Alexa Scholl in 2018 and Frank Smith in 2015, according to Kyle Mox, associate dean for national scholarship advisement at ASU.
“I cannot emphasize enough what a remarkable achievement this is,” Mox said.
“Given the incredible level of accomplishment among the applicant pool, the Truman Scholarship is among the most difficult national scholarships to win.”
Each university is limited to four nominees, and ASU typically gets 10 to 12 strong applications for those four spots, he said. Students who want the award must show that they already have a deep commitment to service.
When Montero was running for a seat on the school board, the Lorraine W. Frank Office of National Scholarships Advisement reached out to him to begin long-term planning, Mox said.
Montero found out he won the award during a surprise Zoom call on April 14 with ASU President Michael Crow and Provost Nancy Gonzales.
Montero, a graduate of Desert Vista High School in the Tempe Union district, answered some questions from ASU News:
Question: What was the Truman application process like?
Answer: It was a very lengthy process and very stressful. I started in August of last year. There are a bunch of essay questions related to issues we’re passionate about, why we’re interested in public service, our future goals, and then a policy proposal on an issue we identified.
My policy proposal was on mental health in public schools, which is one of the reasons I ran for school board in the first place. It focused on legislation that would require school districts to create specific mental health policies that would focus on prevention, intervention and finding different ways to incentivize the hiring of school counselors.
Q: What is it like being on the school board?
A: It’s definitely been a very challenging few years. It’s not easy to be on a school board currently because of our responsibilities during the pandemic, plus the very divided times right now.
What sticks out to me the most as someone who graduated from this district in 2019 is to go into classrooms now and have students see someone who looks like them and understands them, which is not something I had in high school. I’ve had to make some of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make before.
Q: What are some of the difficult decisions you’ve faced?
A: Once I was elected, I realized how those decisions affect your life. We focus on presidential and state elections, but those don’t always have the direct impact that the school board decisions have. They’re up close and personal. So students should get involved with what’s happening on their school boards and raise their voices.
As we were going through the pandemic, there were a lot of really tough discussions around when we reopen our schools or have mask mandates. We faced a lot of disruptions daily. We took a deep look at our budget, as a lot of things we had in place weren’t there anymore, and we had to shift resources.
It was especially difficult because public education is a hot-button issue and we don’t have a lot of support from the state, so a lot of the time we were on our own. We knew the right decision but were told we couldn’t do it, and coming to terms with that is difficult.
One big accomplishment was last year when we passed the most comprehensive mental health policy in the state to date. It’s a very comprehensive plan to deal with intervention and social-emotional learning that outlines goals for schools.
Q: You also work as a policy analyst for ASU. What do you do?
A: I work in the Office of University Affairs with Max Goshert and a team. We take on a variety of policy analysis projects. Sometimes we work with Knowledge Enterprise and sometimes with Dr. Crow.
One of our ongoing tasks is analyzing budget requests from federal agencies and identifying opportunities for ASU, as well as analyzing federal higher education legislation. And also just whatever is of interest at the time. We give reports and briefs on the political landscape.
Q: You said you want to become a lawyer to improve the quality of education in Arizona. What are some specific issues you’re interested in?
A: There’s a lack of conversation, especially at the state Legislature, about school finance reform and equity in school finance and the way that money is distributed across the state. The disparities that exist in our own district are striking. Step one is obviously we need more funding in general, but there has to be a conversation about how we distribute the funding we’re getting.
Looking at our teachers is another hot-button issue this year. We’re seeing a massive shortage of teachers across the nation, but especially in Arizona. They’re not being treated like the professionals that they are. One of the things we do in our district is to make teachers feel appreciated, but that’s sometimes hard when they see what’s happening in the state Legislature. We have to give them proper compensation and the leeway they need for their own class and trust that they’re doing what they’re trained to do.
Q: What does your family think?
A: They’re very excited as well. They’ve been some of my biggest supporters in this process.
I came to them in 2019 and said I was running for school board and it was, "Are you crazy?" But they’ve been very supportive, especially when I’m rambling about things they probably don’t care about, they make sure to sit and listen and give advice and comfort.
Q: What do you want people to know about being a school board member?
A: What a lot of people don’t understand about being on a school board is that sometimes it’s very lonely. We have open meeting laws and can’t talk to more than one person at a time, so we’re faced with these decisions by ourselves. And there’s been a lot of vitriol around school board meetings.
We’re unpaid. It’s a difficult position to have, but having support helps us to stay in the position.
Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News
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