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After a job curveball, this single mother heads back to school

Written by
Dilys Pierson

September 12, 2021


Nichelle Montanez photo

At 26, Nichelle Montanez had a job that she loved, working at a gas station in Westminster. She enjoyed her co-workers, loved the environment, and planned to stay and grow with the company. 

“I was going to work hard, become the manager, and be there for the rest of my working career,” she recalls. 

Then in mid-2019, the business was sold. The company that bought the station wouldn’t recognize Nichelle’s years of experience, and she was going to have to start all over under the new owners. She realized it was no longer the place for her. 

So this single mom of a two-year-old boy decided to go back to school. 

“I was always adamant that I didn’t need college,” Nichelle says. “When I was in high school, I had it in my mind that you had to be really smart to even be able to go. And it was super expensive. I never thought I’d be able to afford it.”

As a result, Nichelle, who struggled through the end of high school after losing her mom unexpectedly at 17, simply put college out of her mind. “I just didn’t think about it, so I wouldn’t be setting myself up for disappointment.”

But Nichelle’s mentors always encouraged her to pursue a degree. Suzie Wagner, an outreach counselor for VSAC, and Danielle Southwell, a counselor with youth services who worked extensively with Nichelle after she lost her mom, suggested college at the time, and they kept at it. “Danielle, especially, had been trying to get me to go to school for forever,” says Nichelle. “Finally, everything just clicked, and I said ‘Okay. I’m ready to do it.’”

Nichelle then enrolled at the Community College of Vermont in Brattleboro. 

“It was actually really simple,” she recalls. She set up a meeting, did a short assessment, and took a refresher math class. “It was a lot easier than I thought it would be.”

Danielle then referred Nichelle to VSAC, where she reconnected with Wagner and received two scholarships that covered the cost of her education. 

“I never ever thought I’d be able to afford school. When I found out about the grants, that was amazing. It meant that I wouldn’t have to stress about the cost,” Nichelle says.

At first, her plan was to study business, to set herself up to open her own gas station someday.  “I had worked there for so long that I thought that’s what I wanted to do with my life,” Nichelle says. “But then I remembered my old dream, that I wanted to become a crime scene investigator. It’s what I always said I wanted to do if money was no object and I could go to school. So I talked to my advisor about it, to see if that would be a realistic switch, and he said that it was.”

Her CCV advisor also noticed that Nichelle lit up when she talked about a law enforcement career, much more so than she did when she talked about business. So she switched her major to behavioral dcience. “I think I’ll look to become a probation officer, now that I know what’s required,” Nichelle says. 

Currently in her sophomore year at CCV, Nichelle says she’s really fortunate to have received so much support — from the scholarships to other programs that mean she doesn’t have to work while she’s in school. But still, it hasn’t been easy to juggle college classes and being a single parent, particularly during a pandemic. 

“It seems like every semester, something happens,” she says. Her son Colt, now almost four, gets sick a lot; they’ve been through multiple rounds of croup, and even a respiratory virus that landed him in the hospital for several hours.

“He gets sick, and he can’t go to school. Especially with COVID, if he has so much as a sniffle, he can’t go to school. So he stays home with me, and I’m still trying to do my online classes. He really doesn’t like the computer,” Nichelle laughs. “He’ll just close the laptop so he can get my attention.”

Like any good mother, Nichelle sometimes struggles to feel that she’s striking the right balance between pursuing her dreams and giving her son what he needs. But she also says that getting back into school has boosted her confidence. “It’s reassuring to know that you’re doing well. You think, okay, I can do this. And even though I’ve had issues come up where I’ve had to miss classes, I now know what I need to succeed. It’s really nice to have that.”

Wagner, Nichelle’s VSAC counselor, is proud of her student’s accomplishments. “Nichelle juggles a lot of responsibilities, but she’s strived to make continuing her education a priority. Despite obstacles, she works hard and has a solid vision for her future.” 

Says Nichelle: “I never would have thought that I would go back to school, let alone enjoy it. I literally just did a 180, from ‘you don’t need college’ to ‘just go! There’s no reason not to!’” 

“I do wish I hadn’t waited so long,” she says. “But things needed to happen in my life for me to be able to appreciate the opportunities that I have now.”

Educational Opportunity Center: 30 years helping Vermont adults achieve success

Ready to take the next step in your career? Considering a class, certification, career training, or college program?  Whether you’re starting for the first time, returning to school after a gap, or are an avid lifelong learner, VSAC is here to help. The Educational Opportunity Center program at VSAC serves adults who do not yet have a 4-year degree. Most adults served through EOC are the first in their families to go to college and have financial barriers to pursuing their goals beyond high school. VSAC EOC counselors throughout the state help with career exploration, education and training options, and financial aid applications.

Our EOC counselors can help you:

Ready to access these services and more? Contact a VSAC EOC team member by calling 877-961-4369.