UD alumna Nicole Montanez was invited to speak to students on the same study abroad program she participated in 10 years prior.

South Africa sparks a passion

UD graduate's study abroad experience changed the trajectory of her career forever


8:42 a.m., May 12, 2016--Ten years had passed since Nicole Montanez sat in an overly warm conference room at the Courtyard hotel in South Africa. Back then, she was a sophomore business major, studying abroad on a joint program led by Norma Gaines-Hanks, associate professor of human development and family studies, and Francis Kwansa, associate professor of hotel, restaurant and institutional management.

In January 2016, she found herself standing in the same room, in front of 25 students on the same program. “It was amazing,” said Montanez. “I loved being able to share advice with UD students in the exact position I’d been in.”

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Montanez was so inspired by her experience abroad that she changed her major to human services. She worked with the Institute for Global Studies to take advantage of a partnership with the University of Pretoria (UP) and returned the fall of her junior year to study for six months.

Upon graduating from UD, she was chosen as one of six students to complete an intensive master’s degree program in social work and health at UP, where her research focused on learning about the behaviors of young “street workers” who earned their living in the sex industry.

After her program, Montanez returned to the U.S. for a few years, working at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, but her heart was in South Africa.

She returned to the country she loves, and now serves as a research evaluations consultant at the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender at the University of Pretoria. Her research includes a project that focuses on seven different interest areas affecting the street population and allows her to meet with a variety of groups in the community, as well as observe and understand how students respond to education on topics including HIV education and life skills courses.

“If you have the passion and drive to do something, even if it takes you on a long road, you will get there,” Montanez told the UD students.

UD helped her find her passion

Montanez first discovered her interest in research as an undergraduate, observing preschoolers at UD’s Lab Preschool.

“I found it very interesting to watch what the children were doing while sitting in an observation room where I could write everything down in profound detail. I picked up on things that my other classmates did not, and I began to understand how applied research could be implemented,” said Montanez.

Crediting many professors and internship opportunities, Montanez said that without their support, she would not be where she is today. And she was happy to give back, talking to a new group of Blue Hens.

“It was wonderful to share my experience with the students and professors Gaines-Hanks and Kwansa,” said Montanez. “They had such a hand in creating this opportunity for me and introduced me to something that has become such an important part of my life.”

She advised the students to research what their options are. “When you find out what you want, it will hit you like a ton of bricks,” Montanez told them. “Be patient with yourself and others, and hold on to positive relationships. You’ll figure out how to make it work.”

“She is an incredible young woman who has done amazing work in trying to help reduce the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa,” said Taylor Ryan, a senior human services major. “Not too long ago she was in our exact shoes. She made the conversation so relatable and also made me feel as though no dream was unattainable.”

Montanez admitted that, 10 years ago, as an undergraduate student sitting in that warm conference room, she could not have predicted her life’s work would be educating individuals with HIV/AIDs.

“It is a tremendously difficult situation. Helping people overcome the stigma of HIV/AIDs is both the biggest and greatest challenge of my career. But,” she continued, “Though the job comes with trials and tribulations, hope is the biggest reward.”

Article by Elizabeth Adams

Photos courtesy of Francis Kwansa

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