There was a time when Wilfredo Montijo’s life seemed pretty miserable. Flunking his business classes at Montgomery County Community College caused him to lose his financial aid, effectively ending his college career as a full-time student for a while. Then on top of that, he lost his job selling cell phones.
“I worked 40 hours a week, but unwisely, enrolled in 15 credits for two consecutive semesters,” he said. “Unfortunately, I failed miserably at a degree program that did not suit me.”
Yet Montijo, now 33, managed to turn his life around and is now a shining example of perseverance and determination. He is an MCCC alumnus, who has gone on to earn a bachelor and master’s degree in medical laboratory science from Thomas Jefferson University and now travels across the country as a medical technician.
He is proof that there is always a way forward, even when things seem bleak.
Montijo first stepped on MCCC’s Central Campus in Blue Bell in 2008, three years after graduating from Norristown High School. Like many students, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life. After graduation, he first thought about learning a new skill at a trade school, but a year later and thousands of dollars out the door he “discovered that the career opportunities and coursework transferability promised, were not realities.”
Still undecided about his future, Montijo enrolled at MCCC as a business major.
“All of my friends from high school went to college to major in business,” he said. “When I failed out of it, I knew it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t the way I should go. I always had a desire for medicine.”
Montijo had wanted to finish school as quickly as possible but stretched himself too thin. He tried to juggle a full course load and a 40-hour a week job at T-Mobile. “I burned myself out,” he said. “I was burning the candle at both ends. I failed my courses and was physically sick from stress.”
His poor grades put him on academic probation, and he lost his financial aid, forcing him to drop out of college. Then he lost his job and began to spiral as he tried to find low paying jobs to survive.
“It was really hard,” he said.
In 2012, Montijo found the beginnings of a second chance at college. The Montgomery County CareerLink program offered a $5,000 educational grant for dislocated workers.
“When I took the skills assessment exam, it was being proctored by Linda Woll, who is an academic advisor at Montco,” he said. “She saw my test results and said ‘I don’t think you look like an office manager. What did you really want to do when you came here?’”
He mentioned having an interest in biotechnology but was concerned about the job prospects for someone with an associate’s degree. She told him about MCCC’s Medical Laboratory Technician program, and Montijo said it sounded like a perfect fit for him.
By December, he’d received approval for the grant and started classes again in 2013. This time things would be different. Instead of biting off more than he could chew, Montijo worked a part- time job at a chiropractor’s office in West Norriton and took fewer courses online each semester so he could strike a good balance between work and school.
“I took the time and taught myself how to study, read chapters, write papers and go through the process of being a student all over again,” he said. “I got an A in each class. In the summer time, I took three classes again. I got A’s in each of those.”
While the grant got him into school again , it didn't cover the overall costs for tuition, housing, transportation and life’s other expenses. Montijo needed financial aid. With his improved grades, he applied for an academic appeal, which would allow him to receive financial aid again, and was approved. He was back where he needed to be.
Then he met Debra Eckman-Drabick, Medical Laboratory Technician Assistant Professor, who mentored him and helped him through the necessary prerequisites and into the Medical Laboratory Technician program in the spring of 2014.
By October, his hard work continued to pay off. He'd received two scholarships: the Audrey W. Howard Memorial Scholarship, open to all students with a 3.0 GPA pursuing a science degree, who intend to to go on to obtain a four-year degree; and the Bruce Gunsel Scholarship, open to graduates of Norristown High School, who have completed 24 or more credits at MCCC.
By the spring of 2016, he started clinical rotations at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery and was hired as an employee there that summer. By fall, he was finished at MCCC and ready to continue studying at a four-year institution.
During MCCC’s Career Day, Montijo met with a representative from Thomas Jefferson University and learned about its medical laboratory science program. Students seeking a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in Biotechnology, Cytotechnology and Cell Sciences, or Medical Laboratory Science can enter Thomas Jefferson University for upper-division study after completing prerequisite coursework at another school.
The combined BS/MS option allows students with three prior years of specific prerequisite coursework to earn a BS and MS in two calendar years of full-time study. Montijo transferred his credits to Jefferson and began the program after graduating with an associate’s degree from MCCC.
In 2018, he graduated from Jefferson, and continued working at Einstein where he was promoted to a Medical Laboratory Technologist. In November, he was hired to teach classes part time at Jefferson for two semesters. Then he worked at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for five months beginning in January 2019, before leaving to become a traveling medical technologist. He worked at a hospital in Hawaii for six months and now travels across the country as a traveling medical laboratory scientist with Aureus Medical Staffing.
From dark times to a bright future, Montijo said he’ll be forever grateful for the guidance and help he received as a student at MCCC.
“Montco helped me get my feet back on the ground,” he said. “It always had my back from the moment I got back into school and it has propelled me forward in my career.”