CU Denver Alum Roberto Montoya Answers ‘Ancestral Call’ as First-Ever Chief Educational Equity Officer for the Colorado Department of Higher Education

February 15, 2022
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Alum Roberto Montoya, PhD, began teaching the social foundations of race and racism as an adjunct professor at CU Denver’s School of Education & Human Development in 2012. He received his doctor of philosophy, education and human development, in May 2021. His dedication to fostering educational equity began while working in recruiting for Colorado Mesa University and enrollment at Regis University, and on multiple research projects and grants for public K-12 schools including Cherry Creek School District, Boulder Valley School District, and Denver Public Schools. He has also worked in the private sector, developing equity and advocacy initiatives. Montoya served as manager of diversity and engagement for the City and County of Denver at the Denver International Airport and most recently as west regional manager for the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) for Race Forward, the country’s largest racial justice organization. In August 2021, Montoya was appointed to the newly created position of chief educational equity officer for the Colorado Department of Higher Education.   

Finding an Educational Path Out of Poverty 

Scenes from CU Denver alum Roberto Montoya’s childhood growing up in the barrios of Albuquerque, New Mexico, retain a cinematic clarity to this day. A Vietnam War veteran, Montoya’s father had struggled with undiagnosed PTSD. “My mother was not educated and had to go back into the workforce after my parents separated and divorced,” he says. “I have never forgotten what it was like living in poverty, worrying about our lights being turned off. But it was a place of joy and exploration, too.” 

Alum Roberto Montoya, PhD, is the first-ever chief educational equity officer for the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

The project housing community he lived in surrounded a large park where children of all ages played until the streetlights flashed on, often protected by older gang members. “They were great assessors of talent,” Montoya recalls. “They would say, ‘leave him alone,’ meaning me. ‘He’s a good athlete, has a good head on his shoulders.’ They fed and took care of us and granted, they were doing really bad things.”  

Montoya attended a largely Chicano, Mexican, and Hispanic high school. “These are three distinct identities in Albuquerque,” he says. “Folks would tell me, ‘You go to such a diverse school.’ And I thought, you mean ‘I go to a brown school.’” 

His senior year, a recruiter from Colorado Mesa University invited him to fly out for a diversity weekend. “It was also the sports recruitment weekend, and I remember really enjoying seeing so many people of color there,” he recalls. “Mesa was intentionally looking to diversify, but when I showed up at the dorms, it was culture shock. I’d never seen so many white people in my life.” 

Montoya majored in political science, got involved in student government, and quickly began organizing to influence institutional change. He became the first student of color in the school’s history to serve as student body president. “I realized I wanted to dedicate my life to serving all students,” he recalls.  

On his way to work in Washington, D.C., and planning to attend law school following graduation, Montoya learned that he and his former college girlfriend were expecting a child. “I knew I was going to do what I always wish my dad had done, which was stay,” he says.  

He worked in admissions at Mesa for almost a year before landing a job with The Hershey Company. When the chocolate manufacturer closed its Denver office, Montoya worked in talent acquisition and organizational development at Red Robin restaurants, “trying to figure out how to embed diversity.” 

Pivoting Toward the Pursuit of Equity in Higher Ed 

In 2008, Montoya decided to go back to school to become a professor on the advice of an aunt and mentor who taught law at the University of New Mexico. He started a master’s program in ethnic studies at Regis University in 2009 and worked in admissions. He earned a master of arts in ethnic/cultural studies in 2012 and began pursuing a doctorate of philosophy, education and human development at CU Denver in 2013, where he taught the social foundations of race and racism.  

“I was consulting with school districts and had a cadre of in-service teachers who had come through my class asking for help to replicate that learning around educational equity,” he recalls. 

Montoya was subsequently recruited to Race Forward, where he became the west regional manager for the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), working with mayors, city councils, city managers, and chief diversity officers on racial justice issues. “My first day at GARE was the day George Floyd was murdered,” he recalls. “Never had I experienced such an appetite for and leaning into racial justice. Yet we also experienced push back from the highest offices in the land.” 

When the role of chief equity officer arose in 2020, Montoya felt “an ancestral call, because I am the embodiment of what we’re trying to do in this state,” he says. “I was not the most exceptional student in the classroom, but I had exceptional equity support.” 

Although the position was initially tabled due to COVID-19, the opportunity returned, and Montoya started in August 2021. “I am honored to be serving as an amplifier, conduit, and supporter of closing the educational equity gaps that have persisted in this state for so long,” he says. “We are doing generational work at all the institutions of higher ed, looking at how we establish policy and provide assistance. You cannot wish in educational equity. You have to work it in with dedicated resources.” 

Identifying and Removing Barriers to Educational Equity 

As an example, Montoya cites CU Denver’s recent designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution. “It’s easy to be a Hispanic-enrolling institution, but we are asking college leaders to identify the biggest barriers to serving Hispanic students on their campuses. And a couple bubbled up really quickly—mental health and food insecurity. So, we worked with stakeholders to develop wraparound services to create healthy minds and hunger-free campuses.”  

Montoya credits CU Denver with “centering equity as the north star” by committing to become the nation’s first equity-serving institution in its 2030 Strategic Plan. “Educational equity is both a process and a product,” he says. “It’s a way in which we do the work and measure the work. CU Denver serves as an exemplar for beginning to normalize conversations about equity as a process, stating how they’re going to do it, and then how they’ll measure how they’re doing. We are interested in partnering with CU Denver to help think through what that looks like.” 

He applauds the commitment to racial justice and educational equity that he experienced as both instructor and doctoral student at CU Denver, and is grateful for professors and the late School of Education & Human Development Dean Rebecca Kantor, EdD, “who supported me when I was struggling financially,” he says. “And that’s equity work, providing students with the resources they need when they need them. Dean Kantor never gave up on me and other scholars. When I say I had intense equity support, that’s what I mean. I feel a responsibility to pay that forward to all learners in the state of Colorado.”