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May 3, 2022

Armando Montero, triple major, sits on the Tempe Union School Board

An Arizona State University student has won the nation’s most prestigious award for undergraduates pursuing careers in public service – despite having already been involved in local government for two years.

Armando Montero, who is pursuing three degrees — political science, economics and math — was voted the youngest member of the school district’s board of trustees at Tempe Union High School in 2020. He is now the winner of a Truman scholarship.

Montero, who is at Barrett, The Honors College and will graduate from ASU in 2023, plans to use the prize money to attend Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and then work for nonprofit education lucrative.

“One of the main reasons I’m going to law school is to continue working in local politics, which I’ve been doing since I was a sophomore in high school,” he said.

“I still want to serve on the school board and continue to work in the community I grew up in.”

Since the Truman Scholar Program began in 1977, ASU has produced 22 Truman Scholars. The most recent recipients are Alexa Scholl in 2018 and Frank Smith in 2015, according to Kyle Mox, associate dean for the national scholarship board at ASU.

“I can’t stress enough what a remarkable achievement this is,” Mox said.

“Given the incredible level of achievement among the applicant pool, the Truman Fellowship is one of the toughest national scholarships to win.”

Each university is limited to four applicants, and ASU typically receives 10 to 12 strong applications for those four spots, he said. Students wishing to receive the award must show that they already have a deep commitment to service.

When Montero was running for a school board seat, Lorraine W. Frank’s Office of National Scholarship Counseling contacted him to begin long-term planning, Mox said.

Montero found out he won the award during a surprise April 14 Zoom call 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 candidacy process like?

To respond: It was a very long and very stressful process. I started in August last year. There are a bunch of essay questions related to topics we are passionate about, why we are interested in public service, our future goals, and then a policy proposal on an issue we have identified.

My policy proposal was about mental health in public schools, which is one of the reasons I ran for the school board in the first place. He focused on legislation that would require school districts to create specific mental health policies that focused on prevention, intervention, and researching different ways to incentivize the hiring of school counselors.

Q: What is it like to be a member of the school board?

A: The last few years have certainly been very difficult. It’s not easy being on a school board right now because of our responsibilities during the pandemic, in addition to the very divided times right now.

What strikes me the most as a graduate of this district in 2019 is going into the classrooms now and showing the students someone who looks like them and understands them, which I didn’t have not in high school. I had to make some of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make before.

Q: What are some of the tough decisions you’ve had to face?

A: Once elected, I realized how much these decisions affect your life. We focus on presidential and national elections, but these do not always have the direct impact that school board decisions have. They are close and personal. Students should therefore get involved in what is happening in their school board and make their voices heard.

As we went through the pandemic, there were a lot of very difficult discussions about when we reopen our schools or have mask mandates. We have been confronted with many disruptions on a daily basis. We took a deep look at our budget, because a lot of things that we had in place were no longer there, and we had to shift resources.

It was especially difficult because public education is a hot issue and we don’t have much support from the state, so most of the time we were alone. We knew the right decision, but we were told we couldn’t do it, and it’s hard to accept that.

A great accomplishment was last year when we passed the state’s most comprehensive mental health policy to date. It is a very comprehensive plan of intervention and social-emotional learning that defines the objectives of the schools.

Q: You also work as a policy analyst for ASU. What are you doing?

A: I work in the Office of University Affairs with Max Goshert and a team. We support various policy analysis projects. Sometimes we work with Knowledge Enterprise and sometimes with Dr. Crow.

One of our ongoing tasks is to analyze federal agency budget requests and identify opportunities for ASU, as well as to analyze federal higher education legislation. And also anything that is of interest at the time. We give reports and briefs on the political landscape.

Q: You said you wanted to become a lawyer to improve the quality of education in Arizona. What specific issues are you interested in?

A: There is a lack of conversation, especially in the state legislature, about school finance reform and fairness in school finances and how money is distributed in the state. The disparities that exist in our own neighborhood are striking. The first step is obviously that we need more funding in general, but there has to be a conversation about how we distribute the funding that we get.

Examining our teachers is another hot topic this year. We are seeing a massive teacher shortage across the country, but especially in Arizona. They are not treated like the professionals they are. One of the things we do in our district is to make teachers feel appreciated, but sometimes it’s hard when they see what’s going on in the state legislature. We need to give them proper compensation and the leeway they need for their own class and have confidence that they are doing what they were trained to do.

Q: What does your family think?

A: They are also very excited. They have 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 have been very supportive, especially when I talk about things they probably don’t care about, they make sure to sit down and listen and give advice and reassurance.

Q: What do you want people to know about being a school board member?

A: What many people don’t understand about being on a school board is that it can be very lonely at times. We have open meeting laws and we can’t talk to more than one person at a time, so we’re on our own to make those decisions. And there’s been a lot of vitriol around school board meetings.

We are not paid. It’s a tough position to be in, but having support helps us stay in that position.

Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Michael A. Bynum