Thursday, January 29, 2009

Student determined to receive degree and serve as role model

By Courtney Westlake

Ricardo Montoya Picazo is no stranger to hard work and commitment - characteristics that have taken him far in life after his family moved from Mexico to the United States. Now Montoya Picazo, a senior at UIS, is using those characteristics of determination and leadership to carry him through college and onto a political career that will be shaped by his background and experience.

After moving from Mexico, Montoya Picazo’s family first lived in California and then in Iowa for a year before settling in Beardstown, where his uncle lived. He transferred to UIS in his junior year after attending Lincoln Land Community College.

Montoya Picazo was motivated to come to UIS by a professor who told him what a great political science program UIS offered and about the many opportunities available because of UIS’s location in the state capital. Montoya Picazo first became interested in political science after he was involved in a political rally at age 15.

“As I grew older, I learned more about public and social issues, and I liked it more,” he said. “I wanted to work with the public and get involved in social change. There needs to be more Hispanics in the public field.”

Latinos and Latinas make up one of the biggest minorities in the United States.

“Sometimes issues in the political field are biased if you see them from a Hispanic perspective,” he said. “Sometimes people don’t see how a law would affect our customs, and they’re not familiar with how we think.”

Montoya Picazo has always had an interest in serving the public and his community. For several years, he has been a mentor and teacher for Project Next Generation, which encourages and enables children in the Beardstown community to pursue and complete degrees in higher education.

“We want to make the parents aware that their kids can seek higher education; they don’t have to just graduate high school and go into the labor force,” he said. “Many of my kids in junior high and high school think that way.”

The Project also helps children learn about technology and computers, Montoya Picazo said.

“There is a program based on teaching digital and computer technology and software, and we want to make kids aware of technology and take them out of the streets,” he said. “Today’s kids like to burn music, create videos and create their own projects. We also take yearly trips to major cities. It is interesting.”

Being a Latino in politics will not only open doors for other Latinos in the country but also encourage them to become involved, Montoya Picazo believes.

“If somebody is Hispanic, other Hispanics tend to want to participate in events,” he said. “Changes in Beardstown have improved; they are a much more accepting town, and the town is really trying to involve Hispanics in the school and community.”

Montoya Picazo sees himself in public office in the long-term future and would like to work for governmental agencies before running, such as the department of immigration or homeland security.

When Montoya Picazo came to the United States at age nine, he assumed it was a Spanish-speaking country because his father still spoke Spanish to them over the phone while they were in Mexico. Unfortunately, there wasn’t an ESL (English as a second language) program at his school, and he “felt lost” at the culture shock, he said.

“I didn’t want to go to school; I wanted to stay home,” he said.

In 5th grade, however, an ESL program was implemented, and he began to learn reading and writing. In 7th grade, he made the choice to not be a part of ESL anymore.

“There was no way for me to learn it well,” he said. “They offered to have me come back if I had trouble, but I didn’t. It forced me to speak English, and that’s why I’m better at English now.”

Montoya Picazo said while he still embraces his native culture, he is grateful for the opportunities in the United States, especially being able to pursue higher education.

“I love my culture, but I have grown into American culture too; I like American food and music,” he said. “And I know if I was over there still, I wouldn’t be at UIS. I would have only gotten through grade school. So I owe that to my father; I’m thankful to him.”

Monday, January 12, 2009

Conference coordinator keeps busy outside of UIS

By Courtney Westlake

Grant Johnson
doesn’t settle for a life that revolves solely around his daytime job.

Johnson, who is a conference services coordinator, admits that he thoroughly enjoys his career as one of three coordinators that plans conferences and events in coordination with university departments, clubs, organizations and professors to plan and implement their events.

But besides his full-time job, Johnson also pursues a plethora of outside interests that keep him on his toes…literally.

“I’ve been dancing with the Springfield Ballet Company for the past 10 years,” he said. “My older brother was involved in theater and got me involved with the company. The ballet company was looking for additional men, so I met the director, and she asked if I could dance and I said ‘I've done some’.”

Johnson has been a featured performer and dancer with them for many productions.

“I’ve done numerous Nutcrackers. This year was 10th anniversary doing the Nutcracker,” he said. “I’ve done most of the storybook ballets: Swan Lake, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and other performances.”

As if that isn’t enough, Johnson has also been raising and showing Clydesdale draft horses with his parents for the past 20 years.

His family is primarily involved in the breeding aspect, and they also participate in local shows, such as the one held at the Illinois State Fair each August and the National Clydesdale Show in Milwaukee. Last year, they traveled to Madison, Wisconsin to take part in the World Clydesdale Show.

“It’s a family affair, something my family and I are very involved in,” Johnson said. “I just love working with the animals. I do a lot of the hands-on work with the horses; I do a lot of the showing. I love to give them attention and preparation for show. Just like an athlete needs to be trained or have practice, we have to do that with our horses.”

“I enjoy riding,” he added, “but I also like the traditional way of showing draft horses hitching the horses to a cart or wagon.”

Between his hobbies and full-time job, Johnson rarely gets a break, but he prefers it that way. Doing ballet, raising horses and especially working at UIS has allowed him to get to meet so many people.

“With my job I get to deal with so many entities and departments that I get to know numerous personnel,” he said. “I work with food services, building, electronic media, sometimes television, and other personnel around campus. Plus, I enjoy working with students to help them with their events to make them well-attended and successful. I like just making everyone happy and pleased with their event and showing off the university to the best of our ability."

Does he feel he is unique for having such a variety of interests?

“I don’t know if it's unique, but it keeps me busy,” he said with a laugh. “I enjoy being busy. Having horses is fulltime job in itself. We don’t live at our property, so we have to go out there twice a day, if not three times a day, to feed them and take care of them. It’s just something I really enjoy doing.”