Leticia Merrills-Gonzalez, left, and Eliza Montoya
Las Vegas, New Mexico – The Las Vegas chapter of the American Association of University Women awarded $1,000 scholarships to two outstanding Highlands University students who balance academics and motherhood.
Eliza Montoya will earn her master’s degree in environmental science and management in December 2016 and Leticia Merrills-Gonzalez will complete her bachelor’s degree in business administration in May 2016.
“Both these women are very worthy scholars whom the Las Vegas branch of AAUW is proud to honor,” said Carol Winkel, AAUW scholarship co-chair. “They are impressive women with admirable drive and determination to complete their education while overcoming challenges. They are also strong role models to their children and others.”
Montoya, 24, is a single mother who earned her B.S. in biology from Highlands in 2014 and began her graduate studies the same year.
“In my sophomore year I had my daughter, Aubrey, and hard work and grit took on a whole new meaning in my life,” Montoya said. “I missed one week of school, but did not skip a beat. I was fortunate to have a supportive family.”
Montoya said she had an early fascination with wildlife and the natural environment, something she has in common with 5-year-old Aubrey.
Montoya was an undergraduate research assistant in biology professor Sarah Corey-Rivas’ Molecular Ecology Laboratory. Montoya’s senior research project focused on genetics of the bison herd at Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge.
Since 2014 Montoya has worked for the Denver Zoo as a paid research and restoration intern at the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge. Some of her responsibilities include helping manage ongoing research projects and conducting habitat restoration work in the arroyos.
“My thesis research delves into how this restoration work at the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge can transform these arroyos into thriving ecosystems,” Montoya said. “I’m assessing the restored arroyos that now have pools of water, creating a resource for various wildlife. I’m focusing on aquatic macroinvertebrates – different kinds of bugs – because they are good indicators of a healthy aquatic system.”
For her research, Montoya drags a net along the bottom of pools in Rio Mora to collect samples that she then sorts and identifies in natural resources professor Edward Martínez’ Water Quality Laboratory at Highlands. Martínez is her thesis adviser.
“I’ve had amazing mentors and professors like Dr. Martínez and Dr. Corey-Rivas at Highlands both in and out of the classroom. They’ve molded me into the young scientist I am today,” Montoya said.
She also gained fieldwork experience during a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service internship as a hydrology technician tracking water levels at the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge.
After completing her master’s degree, Montoya wants to continue doing environmental science field research for an agency like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Merrills-Gonzalez, 49, has three children at home, with Noah, 16 and Sarah, 14, at Robertson High School. Isaac, 24, is disabled and works part-time at Highlands and the City of Las Vegas.
“It was always my goal to complete college, but things don’t always go as planned,” Merrills-Gonzalez said. “I went to school part time while working full time and caring for my children. They mean everything to me, but I knew I had to finish my degree to advance professionally.”
Merrills-Gonzalez said as long as she can remember she loved numbers and math.
“Concentrating in finance and accounting was a natural fit for me. I worked for 10 years at a credit union in El Paso and then for seven years at Highlands in Housing Office where I had the opportunity to prepare financial spreadsheets, compile monthly reports and monitor budgets,” Merrills-Gonzalez said.
In 2013 when she had the chance to stop working and become a fulltime student, Merrills-Gonzalez excelled, earning dean’s list honors every semester. She was inducted into societies like the Phi Eta Sigma National Honor Society and also immersed herself in student government and professional organizations.
“It’s important for me to give back to the university. I serve in the undergraduate student senate so I can give a voice to nontraditional students and am president of our Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting student chapter,” Merrills-Gonzalez said.
In 2015 she was selected for a New Mexico Governor’s Internship, where she worked in the state Taxation and Revenue Department assisting accountants and auditors with revenue reports and posting revenues.
After she graduates, Merrills-Gonzalez hopes to work for the federal or state government as an accountant or auditor.
Montoya and Merrills-Gonzalez said they are very thankful for the AAUW scholarships, which the organization funds through its used book sales. Dorothy Maestas co-chairs the AAUW scholarship committee with Winkel.