Q&A with Violetta Montañez, AHS ’18

Violetta found her passion on a study abroad trip to Australia. Now she plans to take that inspiration back to her beloved Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen, connecting residents with the healthcare services they need.
Interviewed by Kim Schmidt
photography by Rosellian Molina

How did you choose Illinois?

When I was applying for colleges, I stopped at a website and a video featuring the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Quad Day and the aesthetics of the campus life really called out to me. I learned that Illinois has the best kinesiology program in the nation—exactly what I was to declare my major in. Illinois is among the top Big Ten schools, holds hundreds of student-led organizations, and a diversity of programs—I was already in love! When I saw a homecoming crowd yelling, “I-L-L…!” & “I-N-I!!!” full of pride—that’s what made me choose to bleed orange and blue. ILLINI!

How did you decide to pursue public health?

In the beginning, I wanted to pursue physical therapy. Then my whole perspective changed after studying abroad for the first time during my sophomore year. I decided I wanted to pursue public health because there’s so much more to give back to my community when I am done with my degrees. Growing up in Pilsen, on the lower west side of Chicago, I remember struggling a lot inside and outside of school. Seeing others struggle to get access to healthcare and affordable services due to their financial or immigrant status—especially when gentrification is occurring, displacing many poor families and friends from my home—is what drove me towards public health. I want to be able to make change. I want to promote good-intentioned public policies that benefit mostly disadvantaged communities. I want to give back to my community. I want to be a service leader in the community. I want to empower them. The thought of creating programs surrounding health and wellness and advocating for my community and others is how I decided public health is my destiny.

You studied abroad. Can you tell me how that experience impacted you?

I studied Global Health & Diversity in Australia during winter break of my sophomore year. It was a faculty-led program that guided us throughout two parts of Australia: Adelaide & Sydney. It was the most amazing, life-changing trip for me. We focused on public health as well as the history of the original owners of the land, Aboriginals, an indigenous culture that has been displaced since the colonization. We learned about how they are dealing with access to healthcare today and how healthcare policies work throughout Australia. We also studied rehabilitation services for people with disabilities and that also inspired me to work towards that pathway as well (today I am a Personal Assistant at Beckwith Residential Support Services on campus). Studying abroad not only gave me cultural competence, but also instilled the passion and inspiration in me to continue to travel and come back as a service leader for my community.

Can you talk a bit about your relationship with Dean Cheryl Hanley-Maxwell, your Illinois Promise mentor?

The first time I met Dean Hanley-Maxwell was a year ago at an Illinois Promise Mentor & Mentee social event on campus. It was my first time at the event, in search for a mentor. A kind woman approached me about my major and college—I am a Kinesiology major at the College of Applied Health & Sciences—and asked why I chose it, what I want to do in the future, and how I liked my program. As I was telling her my whole story, I noticed a very kind, genuine, supportive, empathetic, and positive vibe radiating from her. As our conversation moved forward, she told me she was among the sponsors/guests invited to the event and never had the chance to be a mentor for an Illinois Promise student. That was my opportunity. I asked her if she would like to be my mentor. She said yes! Little did I know that my new mentor was actually the Dean of Applied Health Sciences (fun fact: I didn’t know until after that event!). I was very honored, and since then we continued our monthly meetings to catch up on my progress in school and life. My mentor, Cheryl, has been so supportive and actively guiding me towards the right path in my undergraduate studies here in Illinois. Every meeting we have always ends with a good laugh, a plan for the future, and progress. I’ve always wanted a mentor, someone to listen/talk to and confide in, someone with experience and leadership, someone who understands me—and that all fits Cheryl Maxwell-Hanley. I couldn’t ask for a better mentor and role model. She is wonderful to me.

What do you hope to do after you graduate?

I want to go straight into graduate school. I am looking into public health programs—promoting public policy and education are a few general areas I truly want to concentrate on for my Master’s…and perhaps Ph.D. I do have a scholarship that can cover a few of these degrees, and I want to work as hard as I can today to get accepted to these programs so that I can get closer to my dream of making a positive change in our public health system.