Renaissance Scholar, Renaissance Man

Ramiro Montiel keeps trying to make up for lost time.

Three days a week during the fall quarter, the Renaissance Scholar wakes up at 5 a.m. and is out the door an hour later to fight freeway traffic from Chino to Santa Monica. He arrives at the parking lot of Lions Gate Entertainment by 7:45. Montiel then sets the alarm, reclines his car seat and sleeps for an hour before starting his internship at 9.

When 6 p.m. rolls around, he walks down the street to Starbucks, where he’ll study until 9 rather than crawl home 50 miles in traffic for two hours. When he does get home, it’s more studying until past 1 a.m. before grabbing some rest for a morning class at 10. This fall, Montiel took 16 units.

“I’ve come to realize how much I can do in 24 hours,” Montiel says. “I have no time for complacency.”

Montiel is relishing his life and squeezing all he can into his senior year at Cal Poly Pomona. His introduction to this world is a stark contrast.

“I was left in a stranger’s house as a newborn child,” he says.

At 3 months old, he was placed in foster care after social workers found him and his four older siblings without parental supervision. They were dispersed to foster homes. He says his parents weren’t able to regain custody and died when he was a toddler.

By his own account, he has lived in 24 foster homes throughout Southern California, and attended five elementary schools, two middle schools and two high schools.

“There was no consistency in my life. I lived in different houses for few months and then I would move again,” Montiel says. “I would come ‘home’ and find that my luggage was packed. Some of my stuff was packed in trash bags.”

As a teenager, Montiel battled feelings of abandonment. His eldest brother, Enrique, would visit and spend time with him at his foster homes, but it was far from the family dynamic that Montiel yearned for.

“It was a very emotional loss of my own identity,” Montiel recalls. “I would see parents and kids at the park or see family outings where everyone was so happy and wonder, ‘Why did this happen to me? I want to have a family.’ ”

At night, he would look to the stars and recite a childhood rhyme.

“I would pray and I would wish to somehow be normal,” he remembers.

Without parental or family support, former foster youth who pursue higher education often struggle to navigate a university — both academically and socially. Launched in 2002, the Renaissance Scholars program at Cal Poly Pomona supports the achievements and aspirations of motivated and talented students who emancipate from the foster-care system. The program admits 10 to 15 scholars each academic year.

The program provides scholarships that assist with tuition, fees, books, housing, meals, transportation and personal expenses; assistance with housing costs; tutoring; academic and personal advising; book and computer grants; and emergency funds for unexpected expenses such as medical bills or car repairs.

With tuition, fees and room and board, the cost to attend Cal Poly Pomona can hit $26,000. Even after state and federal grants have been awarded, the average Renaissance Scholar has between $7,000 and $12,000 in unmet financial need annually. Renaissance Scholars has started a campaign to create a $2-million endowment to meet those needs.

Despite the financial challenges, the Renaissance Scholars program boasts a graduation rate of more than 50 percent, dramatically higher than the national average of 5 percent for former foster youth. On average, 92 percent of Renaissance Scholars are in good academic standing, and nearly half maintain a GPA of 3.0 or higher.

The program has graduated 51 Renaissance Scholars since 2002, and 13 alumni have gone on to pursue post-baccalaureate degrees in teaching, social work, public administration, business, law and an educational doctorate.

It was not until Montiel was accepted as a Renaissance Scholar at Cal Poly Pomona that he started to find himself. Montiel arrived on campus in the summer 2011 and took remedial courses in English and math to get him ready for the rigors of college.

“This is where the 360-degree turnaround came in, where my life changed completely into where I am now.”

Montiel says he finished his freshman year with 3.3 grade-point average.

Statistics show that less than 5 percent of foster youth attend college. Of that number, a scant 1 percent will graduate from a four-year university. Montiel is determined to become part of that 1 percent.

“Since my adolescent years, the odds were never in my favor,” he says. “That’s when I realized, if you let your mishaps and tribulations get the best of you, you will fall flat on your face and hit the pavement. You have to pick yourself up and keep moving forward.

“I have learned to make the most out of my past experiences being a foster youth. Those experiences have made me the person I am today.”

He is on track to graduate in June with a bachelor’s degree in marketing with minors in public relations and international business. Montiel is a member of the campus’ American Marketing Association and Public Relations Students Society of America. Away from school, he is involved in foster-care organization agencies such as United Friends of the Children and speaks regularly to children growing up in circumstances similar to his.

Sara Gamez, who helps oversee the Renaissance Scholars program and is Montiel’s mentor, marvels at how much he has accomplished.

“When I first met him, you could tell that he was at that cusp of doing something big. He was so focused and determined to be successful. He’s also always wanted to make sure that he made a positive impact in the lives of others while changing his own world,” says Gamez, a 2004 alumna and former Renaissance Scholar herself. “Seeing him now, connected in the right ways has allowed him to really flourish even more and tap into his full potential.

“Your story becomes part of your identity to some extent. Some chose it not to be as prevalent, for others it’s more prevalent. Everybody’s experience so unique and different. Ramiro has taken the time to reflect on that experience to ensure that he’s working hard for his life to be the opposite of that experience,” Gamez says.

The Renaissance Scholars program has played a pivotal role in Montiel’s transformation, but the person who has had the most impact on his life has been his eldest brother, Enrique.

Years earlier, Enrique Montiel also was a Renaissance Scholar at Cal Poly Pomona. After he graduated in 2006, he became a social worker and received custody of Ramiro and their sister, Magdalena.

When Ramiro Montiel was a senior in high school, the brothers got into an argument, which led to a life-changing heart-to-heart talk.

“Enrique told me that I’m not your father. I will never be your father. I’m your brother. I love you and my job is to take care of you, provide a roof over your head, and give you food and clothing. When you graduate high school, I don’t know what you’re going to do, but you have to figure it out,” Ramiro Montiel recalls. “You’re going to be an adult and I’m not going to hold your hand forever. He said it to me so seriously that I knew he meant it.”

With the point made, Ramiro Montiel followed his brother’s path to Cal Poly Pomona. The long hours and hard work in the classroom are paying off. He’s gleaned industry insights and made corporate connections through his internships at Lions Gate, HBO, Fox Broadcasting and Warner Bros., and has his sights set on a career in entertainment marketing.

“He’s always been a go-getter. He is very ambitious and really wants to demonstrate to the world he’s capable of doing what he wants once he sets his mind to it. You can sense that when you talk to him,” says Enrique Montiel, who keeps a watchful eye from a distance. “Determination is one of the things that I tried to instill in him and he really took that to heart. I was very hard on him, tough love if you will, but I had to be that way in order for him not to take life or any opportunity for granted.

“At that time, he could not understand it and I had to deal with my own conflicts of learning to be a responsible older brother and a parental figure,” Enrique Montiel recalls. “However, now when we talk and remember those times, he tells me he is appreciative and understands that I was hard on him because I wanted what was best for him. And that makes me proud of him because it shows how much he has grown.”

While intestinal fortitude pushed Ramiro to become a dedicated student, outside influences forged his personality.

“When I went into the Renaissance Scholars, I was very selfish. I felt like the world owed me something. When I started having my counseling sessions, a lot of my anger was following me. I started realizing that it’s not only about myself,” Ramiro Montiel says. “Being a Renaissance Scholar showed me to be benevolent and to care, to help others in need. Family is a huge thing for me. I see the Renaissance Scholars as my family.”

Thoughts of family don’t stray far from Ramiro. He has a close relationship with brother Enrique and has a tattoo of another sibling, Rufino, on his right arm. Rufino is autistic, and the tattoo depicts him looking happily into the sky. Magdalena is studying at Cal State Fullerton while another brother, Javier, graduated from Pasadena City College.

“When I was growing up, I couldn’t control my destiny,” Ramiro Montiel says. “Now, I can control whatever I want. I can become whatever I want.”