10:35 AM

President’s Outstanding Graduate Drawn to Special Path

By Tim Meehan

We are often products of our upbringing. A collection of experiences, support systems, and the love of those in our immediate circle.

Aidelen Montoya remembers fondly trips to museums as a child.

She has specific memories of the National History Museum in Balboa Park, traversing through the displays as each one told a fascinating tale of the past. The stories held extra significance because they could be told without the pressure of being graded or judged in a classroom.

That approach of creating art, learning about the past and teaching others did more than inspire a young Montoya. It shaped her into the student of life she is today.

And that student is the recipient of the 2023 Cal State San Marcos President’s Outstanding Graduate Award.

“I really just enjoy the space of education without pressure,” said Montoya, who created her own special major in museum studies, studio art and art history. “I think it is what it is. Because growing up in school, I actually wasn't that good of a student. My older brother (currently at San Diego State) was more of the star student. But in museums, there wasn't something to be graded. It was just kind of pressure-free to learn. And that's what I love. It can be hands on or not.”

Create. Learn. Teach.

Also the Dean’s Outstanding Graduate for the College of Humanities, Arts, Behavioral and Social Sciences, Montoya will leave in the fall for the University of Buffalo with a full scholarship to its Master of Fine Arts program. It will be her first time in New York, where the art scene is among the most inspirational in the world.

She envisions herself teaching at the university level while working at a museum in the future.

“I don't just want a Ph.D. in art history,” said Montoya, who attended Morse High School. “I want to do all these other things as well. I don't want to be put into a box.”

Montoya, who was a TRIO McNair Scholar at CSUSM, personifies what it is to be a college student open to limitless possibilities.

Following three years at Grossmont College, she transferred to CSUSM as a business major with a focus in management in organizations. Her parents were fully behind this path, as the stability of a business degree seemed to mesh with her talents.

But her minor in art history kept nagging at her. She considered a double major, but her gut told her something else. If she was different, then why not pick a different path?

“I wasn't that happy, to be honest,” Montoya said. “So when I found this special major, I shifted it to be what I really wanted to focus on, which was museums and art history. I felt so much happier. All of a sudden, I was getting so involved in school, I got into the McNair Scholars program, I met Professor (Lucy H.G.) Solomon, and we were doing all these cool projects. And then one of my best moments here was presenting at the CSUSM symposium last spring and having my parents come. I presented an art piece that I made. And they were both very rocky on me switching majors to art, asking ‘how can you make money in art? How can you be successful?’ But they were very proud of what I created. And then I got an award in Seattle at the University of Washington.”

That award was Best Oral Talk in the Humanities in the Gabriel E. Gallardo Research, Student Leadership & Advocacy Symposium at UW. At the symposium at CSUSM, she presented her research on changing coastlines in the Philippines and discussed her Filipinx identity. Her series of beaded maps of impacted coastal areas that incorporates traditional beading from the Philippines was impactful on many levels.

On exhibit on the fourth floor of the CSUSM library is Data Stacks, the library’s mini museum. It showcases student works made around art and science. Solomon and Montoya co-curated this collection also to display the inaugural exhibition of the Planet Mentorship pilot program, which is designed to help students of color become changemakers in social justice and environmental issues. 

“I’m not sure what Aidelen will take on in the future, but I know I will be reading about it and about her,” Solomon said.

The special major combines various areas of study into one unique path. It requires a dedicated and organized student along with faculty members willing to go above and beyond the normal curriculum setup.

Michael McDuffie, chair of the philosophy department, received Montoya’s proposal and immediately approved it. Montoya has checked in with McDuffie regularly over the past two years to make sure she’s staying on track to graduate.

She was inspired by Solomon, Judit Hersko and many others in the Art, Media and Design department not only for the work they do in the field, but also for the care they’ve showed her along her path.

Solomon is an associate professor in AMD. She is most impressed with how Montoya dives headfirst into any project she undertakes.

“Aidelen has a work ethic that does not stop – not at night, not on the weekends, not in the summer, maybe not in her sleep,” Solomon said. “She has this quality of animating me and the projects we work on. She is a dedicated student, a careful, detail-oriented artist, and also she is kind. Being a kind person is rarely awarded on its own, so it is good to see her recognized for her other traits as well.”

In February, Montoya was an exhibiting artist for the “Call It From the Mountain” exhibit on campus. She not only created prints with pollen to tell the ecological story of Volcan Mountain through beading (“Volcan Beaded Specimens”), she also helped local grade school students with their artwork in her role as a CSUSM STEAM ambassador.

The experience exposed her to a potential future as a teacher.

“I want to be able to mentor students, maybe be able to be what Professor Solomon was for me for someone else,” Montoya said. “I took her class, and nothing has ever felt more natural with a teacher. Beyond the connection of professor and student, I think as individuals we mesh together so well.”

Montoya loved her explorations as a child at the Nat so much that she got a job there. She works at the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park.

Besides teaching at the university level, she envisions a life working at a museum, creating displays behind glass walls where visitors can watch as her work unfolds.

Her special major will come in handy with her goal of exhibition planning. The museum studies portion combines business management with art history.

A special major for a unique individual who will certainly blaze her own path.

“Professor Solomon had me do the very tedious task of measuring every single part, all the details,” said Montoya, a first-generation student whose parents are both Navy veterans. “At first I wasn’t sure, but as soon as I got started, I loved it. I love doing all the tedious tasks. I love measuring everything, putting it all on a visual so it just makes it easier for everybody else.”

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