This story is part of a series of profiles supported by a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation for in-depth reporting on Latino education equity opportunities and gaps.

Julian Quijada Montiel already seems at ease on the University of Arizona campus though he’s only been a student there for a few weeks. Julian is 18 and the first member of his immediate family to attend college. He’s also the first to graduate from high school. 

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Sitting outside the student union on a scalding afternoon — the first day of summer — eating from a clamshell takeout container of Panda Express, he bears a quiet confidence. With a nearly ramrod posture and easy smile, Julian is simultaneously winsome and intensely focused. 

He speaks in a slow baritone, without the typical ums, likes, or other filler words, and seems to rarely blink. His black mustache is sparse, growing in. Despite his youthful appearance, in many ways he could easily pass for a decade or more older than his 18 years.

Before Julian officially begins classes in the fall semester, he’s participating in a UA orientation program called New Start. The program offers incoming freshmen — typically those who are the first in their families to attend college, along with transfer students — class credit to take a few courses that orient them to university life.

In the fall, he’ll be majoring in Mexican American studies and political science, with an emphasis on law and public policy.

Being Latino in education systems, Julian says, “means having the opportunity to make academia more accessible and welcoming to future Latino students and also meeting other Latinos who have gone through this, which can help make the experience easier, help you grow, and feel like you belong.”

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He wants to understand and change inequities in the system

Born and raised in the city of South Tucson, Julian didn’t start learning English until kindergarten. He spoke Spanish at home as a kid, and it’s still the primary language in his home. 

While he sensed that his elementary school, Mission View, struggled with underfunding he didn’t recognize what he and his classmates were missing until he started middle school, at Mansfeld, which is at Highland Avenue and Sixth Street, across from the UA campus.

He says the comparison between the schools was stark: I noticed a big difference. You go to the classes, they have every material you need. It’s even just cleaner.” 

The differences, he says, can be barriers to education and development. 

He points to other inequities, such as the tiny neighborhood library that was closest to where he grew up and still lives, which he says only had a couple computers, and paled in comparison to county libraries in wealthier parts of town. Still, he depended on the local library, as well as the after-school programming options at Mission View, as his mother worked three jobs to provide for him and his older sister. 

Seeing your mom work three jobs definitely shows you how important hard work is,” he says. “It definitely gives you a reason to keep pushing. And I know that that’s one of my biggest motivators when it comes to school, to make sure that I can give my mom something to see that her work paid off.” 

Latinos make up about 45% of all students in Arizona. In just three years, by 2026, that number is due to top 50%, according to Helios Education Foundation. At Arizona’s three public universities, Latinos are are significantly underrepresented, but their numbers are growing. 

According to a recent report from the Arizona Board of Regents, the governing body of the state’s public universities, “Enrollment of historically underrepresented populations – Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans – increased by 3.2 percent from fall 2021, continuing a trend of continuous enrollment growth.” In the fall of 2022, there were 42,874 Hispanic undergraduate students in the three public universities, or just under 20% of the 220,105 total number of students. 

The total Latino population in the state is just over 30%.

“Being Latino in education,” Julian says, “means you are constantly exposed to varying degrees of culture shock from going to classes with all White people, to being in a room with a language you don’t fully understand yet.” 

“It means,” he adds, “feeling as if you don’t belong in your classroom or other academic settings regardless of your accomplishments because no one in there looks like you, talks like you, or has gone through the Latino experience.”

His elementary, middle and high schools are Title 1 schools, which is an official designation of a school in which at least 40% of its students come from low-income families. Such schools qualify for federal grants meant to ensure equal access to quality education for all students.

It was in high school, at Cholla High, just south of Tucson’s A Mountain, where Julian started to study patterns of inequality. Cholla was the first high school in Tucson to offer the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. 

The Advanced Placement style courses gave him a chance to explore the systems behind the inequities. He took a history course with a focus on Mexican-American perspective, as well as advanced courses in chemistry, English, math, and Arabic. 

That education gave him the perspective to make a broad, and cutting, analysis — one which he says drives him both to understand and hopefully break the cycle that has kept people like him down for generations. 

“It all stems from oppression,” he says.

“They draw up red lines, segregated people of color, put them into their own little areas where they reduce funding, leading to poor education and poor infrastructure. And once that’s there, that’s just a cycle of maintaining people within those areas,” he says. “They don’t get educated and they don’t graduate and go to universities, don’t figure out how to succeed in the real world and make their own money and build up generational wealth and leave this cycle.”

He’s a role model

Heading into college, and seeing the future wide open to him, makes it even more important to address the disparities in opportunity he is still facing, he says.

I’ve always felt that it would be important to discuss why there is this inequity and inequality in education, especially in the U.S., and how that came to be historically, and what we can do to target that change.”

He sees that change as necessary both on a systemic and individual level. 

Julian wants to be a role model for his young nephew, who is 4 years old. “It’s very demoralizing to see that no one in your family who looks like you, talks like you, has the same story as you, goes to college.” 

He says the example he’s setting for his nephew is “opening up a new world to him, showing him it’s there for people like us.”

Julian plans to stay and live and work in the community that raised him. He wants to give back, hoping to work in the Tucson school districts to push for more equal education for all.

He plans to be the kind of educator who teaches children that they have the power to “make sure that your race or your socioeconomic class doesn’t define what type of education you get.”


Editor: Irene McKisson Copy Editor: Beatriz Limón, Dianna M. Náñez Visuals: John Washington Translation: Laura Gómez Rodriguez

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John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...