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Alumna pays it forward to Latinx students at UW-Eau Claire

| Gary Johnson

Photo caption: Lidixe Montoya wants to assist Blugolds by establishing a scholarship for Latinx students who display commitment to social justice leadership on campus and in the community.

Lidixe Montoya grew up in civil war-torn El Salvador in the 1980s and '90s, eventually leaving her homeland for a safer and better life for herself and her son in western Wisconsin.

With the help of an Eau Claire church congregation and other U.S. residents, Montoya graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire two years ago and now works in a ministry to help bring together Lutheran parishioners and members of the Latin American community.

Montoya appreciates her UW-Eau Claire education and wants to give other Latinx students the same opportunity. Montoya, of rural Eleva, has started the Neighbor to Neighbor Scholarship at UW-Eau Claire for members of the university’s Latinx Student Association who display commitment to social justice leadership on campus and in the community. 

“I believe this new scholarship is important for the Latin American students because it is the first one that is exclusively for them,” Montoya says. “We have specific issues — immigration status, prejudices, discrimination, poverty, etc. — that make it more difficult to get to and stay in college.”

Montoya hoped to raise $500 at a garage sale she organized to use toward a scholarship, but thanks to people who worked and donated items, the fundraiser brought in more than four times that amount — $2,300. The first scholarship may be awarded in fall 2021.

Debrah Adams, who with her husband, Bob, sponsored Montoya and her son Pavel, now 10, to come to the U.S. in 2015, applauds her friend’s efforts to give back to the university and its Latinx students.

“We are so proud of her,” Debrah says. “Her project of raising money for a Latinx scholarship at UWEC is not only evidence of her resourcefulness but also of her desire to help others accomplish what she has.”

Montoya became friends with the Adamses when the Eau Claire couple was on a mission trip to El Salvador in 2004 through Mission of Healing, a health education mission founded by the Adamses and the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Debrah, a family nurse practitioner, and Montoya, then a recent medical school graduate in San Salvador, became friends as they worked together providing care for residents of El Salvador. 

Montoya eventually was hired as a rural medical doctor for the public health department in San Salvador and the friends reunited each year for a couple days during the Adamses’ annual mission trips to El Salvador.

But Debrah knew that Montoya and her young son, who is the Adamses’ godchild, needed to leave the Central American country one day.

“Our motivation was to have her and Pavel living in a safer place,” Debrah says. “The gangs are very strong and dangerous in El Salvador, and they try with violent means to recruit young boys to do their errands.”

Montoya finally was able to come to the U.S. in 2015 to study at UW-Eau Claire, with parish members at Hope Lutheran Church in Eau Claire and others in the community raising money to help pay her tuition each semester. Montoya also received scholarships and worked at a variety of jobs on campus.

After graduating from UW-Eau Claire in 2018 with a degree in human resource management and a minor in public health, Montoya earned a master’s degree in leadership and innovation for ministry from Luther Seminary in St. Paul.

Now an ELCA mission developer in Eau Claire, Montoya established the Neighbor to Neighbor: Together in Ministry program. The program is intended to create bridges between the Lutheran denomination and the Hispanic community in the Chippewa Valley. The mission focuses on anti-racism and social justice. 

The idea for the garage sale fundraiser came from Montoya’s love of rummage sales and her desire to help Latinx students who may need assistance to attend college, much like she did.

“The Latin American population is growing and has been historically and systemically denied the opportunity for access to higher education, as any other ethnic minority,” Montoya says. “I thought about a way of bringing together both communities in a way that is not a charity perspective, but a way to create meaningful relationships and has an impact on people’s lives.”

The garage sale was an excellent opportunity for Montoya to bring together local Lutherans with the Spanish-speaking community, says Rev. Phil Ruge-Jones, Grace Lutheran Church pastor. Ruge-Jones says the church is excited to partner with Montoya and noted all involved can learn from the partnership.

“As a church that has benefited from living in a university town and all that UWEC offers, we love that Lidixe's first big project gave back to her alma mater so that more Latinx students like herself can develop their gifts in this place,” Ruge-Jones says. “Lidixe has a sharp mind and a compassionate heart. She comes with a wealth of experience. The world is a better place because she is in it; Eau Claire is blessed to have her here.”

The scholarship is a tremendous opportunity for Latinx students at UW-Eau Claire that is long overdue, says Eduardo Mejia, a senior mathematics, statistics and applied mathematics major from Green Bay who is president of the university’s Latinx Student Association.

“It is amazing that someone like Lidixe saw (a need) and took matters into her own hands as a UWEC alumna,” Mejia says.

Former LSA president Monique Morales Briand, a senior international business and management major from Delavan, appreciates Montoya’s passion to help UW-Eau Claire students succeed.

“Latinx students at UWEC are very appreciative of the hard work that Lidixe and others contributed to have this scholarship be a success and raise enough money to help multiple students,” Morales Briand says. “I admire Lidixe's diligence and the fact that through everything she always has a smile on her face.” 

Anyone who wishes to donate to the scholarship fund can go to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation webpage.