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One-on-One with Mitzi Montoya

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Mitzi Montoya knows a thing or two about race car controls and seats – she helped design some that could withstand a high-speed crash.

Mitzi Montoya

She can also tell you about her contribution to the medical world: “We did a great asthma inhaler device.”

Montoya was referring to some of the projects students worked on for industry and local businesses at an innovation laboratory she founded at North Carolina State University.

Montoya arrived at the University of New Mexico on July 1 for her new job as dean of the Anderson School of Management, becoming the first Hispanic to hold that position and the first female to do so in a permanent capacity.

She’s broken a lot of new ground throughout her career, which has included stints in engineering, marketing, statistics, innovation and product development. During her academic career, she has worked in the private sector doing product design for such companies as Johnson Controls and GlaxoSmithKline.

Underlying it all was a childhood that included a lot of “tearing things down and breaking things,” she says.

“My dad was this kind of classic old-school engineer,” Montoya says. “He could make and build anything. He had a thousand hobbies and so did my mom, and we all went along with it and so it always felt like an adventure.

“Obviously, I love learning, but I also loved doing and inventing and making and creating.”

Why did you transition to college administration?

“I have always been very engaged with industry throughout my career. The design of the educational programs I led really kind of solidified for me this need for connecting the role and the mission of the institution to local industry. It sparked an interest in moving to administration to try to shape a school in order to do that and to be of service to society. I’d say the other thing … was I saw who could get in or not into a university and who could be successful or not once they got into university. And I saw a huge need … to design things differently in order to help students that had different needs.

Please explain.

“Usually, the distinction is income, family income. That is one of the strongest predictors of success in college. It’s that simple. So I saw that (while teaching), and I saw it also in my own extended family. My dad was the only one who went to college in his family, and no one in my mom’s family did. So it was this interesting bifurcation of very different lives. The type of work my aunts and uncles had, and therefore my cousins, and then my family, we were on this very different trajectory… (My family was) very engaged and it didn’t seem that foreign or difficult, but when you would have conversations with people where they’ve never seen that, they don’t have any understanding that higher education is for them and that there are ways to work around and that some debt is good debt when you’re investing in your future. And so it really became clear that higher education in some places doesn’t do a really good job of explaining that and making themselves accessible. Public institutions – I believe it’s our responsibility.”

Can you think of a time during your teaching career when you touched a student’s life?

“There’s lots of them, and what often happens is you don’t know until years later. I just got an email over the weekend from a group of elite scholarship students that I mentored. They were doing a reunion. We took multiple trips with them and one was a camping trip. It’s a horror story trip of a summit hike at Yosemite that is still in my brain. We were hiking in the snow. They remember and they talk about how I was pregnant with my youngest son at the time. Several women said things like, ‘It was so inspiring. We couldn’t keep up with you.’ They thought it was this example of how someone could have a family and be a professor. It encouraged them when they faced difficult times. So you don’t know at the time. You’re just being you and doing what you do.”

What have you been doing in your free time?

“I love hiking. I hike or bike or work out pretty much every single day. I live in the southeast area, and I really like the lower foothills for my every day hikes. I love outdoor stuff. I do play piano. I’m an avid reader.”

Where are your favorite places in the world?

“Portugal. I have been to Portugal many times (for) grant work and summer teaching. I would say I really enjoyed my various trips – because it was such a completely different learning – to Indonesia, Vietnam, even China. The areas in which you just have this amazing emergence of entrance into the global economy.”

What’s a splurge for you?

“I’d buy a camper. And there’s no reason why I’ve not done it. I don’t know where to park it. … I’ve had just about every imaginable car. I have a car thing.”

Your favorite car?

“My Tesla, which I sold when I came here because there’s not a great infrastructure, in my opinion. There was no infrastructure in eastern Washington, either. But it was great in Oregon. The car was a blast, I just have to tell you. The acceleration is unreal, but also the self-driving. It was fun developing a level of trust in the technology.”

Can you give me an example of meaningful advice you’ve received?

“There’s a book by this title that sums it up. The book is ‘The Obstacle is the Way’ (by Ryan Holiday). Or put another way: Get over yourself. So what if you’re having a problem? Work through it. It has for me been to push myself and always be learning and to enjoy that challenge while you’re facing it. And that’s really important, because there will always be obstacles. But they’re only obstacles if you let them be. Otherwise, they’re interesting problems is all.”

 

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