Senior Spotlight: Sophia Monteiro

Penn State Berks student overcomes loss to graduate with two degrees
Sophia Monteiro at commencement

Sophia Monteiro at commencement

Credit: Penn State

WYOMISSING, Pa. — Sophia Monteiro didn’t expect to attend Penn State at all, much less to complete two degrees. Originally from Philadelphia, she wasn’t even considering Penn State as an option until her sister brought home an admissions brochure. A tour of the Schuylkill campus put her on the path to completing her first degree: an associate in human development and family studies. After graduating, she didn’t miss a step before enrolling in a bachelor’s program — this time in an elementary and early childhood education through the 2+2 program, so she could begin at Schuylkill and complete her degree at another campus.

“Initially I wanted to transfer to University Park, but I did really like the smaller campus feel,” Monteiro explained. “I had heard that out of all the Penn State education programs, that the one at Berks was the best, especially because it was a smaller campus and the program was most identical to University Park’s.” She chose to complete the second half of her degree program at Berks, stating, “It was closer to home and I didn’t want to be on an enormous campus where no one knew who I was.”

But her college experience was not without challenges. Before Monteiro was even able to move into the residence halls at Berks, her mother’s long battle with cancer saw her hospitalized, and she died during the spring semester. “It was a real shock to my system,” Monteiro recalled. “I would come home for breaks and tell her about campus and my classes, so when I lost her, I lost a lot of my motivation.”

It became hard to consider continuing her studies, with concerns about finances and being away from home for so much of the year making her hesitate to return to campus. Monteiro and her father, who was also struggling with severe illness as a diabetic amputee, had a conversation where she offered to take a semester off to stay home and help out.

“He asked me ‘Do you like going there?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I love it.’ He told me ‘So go to Penn State. Your mom wouldn’t want you to put your life on pause’. And that became what kept me going.”

Monteiro threw herself back into her studies, but it was a difficult transition. While she had an associate’s degree already behind her, she hadn’t taken many education classes. “Everyone always thinks education will be a breeze, but the classes were so challenging that I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I picked the wrong major’.”

Monteiro credits Jayne Leh, elementary and early childhood education program chair, for her support and guidance through the program. “She would always ask us ‘why?’. She challenged our answers, and asked for explanations, and made sure that everything was really well thought out. Even though it was really stressful at the time, I feel so much more prepared now.”

Things became even more complicated for Monteiro in February of 2020 when her father went into the hospital for a procedure and died. Monteiro says she got the call at midnight and had to go home for a few weeks. Then, in March, the pandemic threw the remainder of her semester into question. While she knew she wanted to keep going and finish her degree, it was discouraging to her to have to deal with so much at once.

“But it was important to me to know I could stand on my own and finish. And it was so important to my parents that I succeed and build a life for myself. My dad always said I was stubborn, and now I can see that in myself. I got through on pure stubbornness,” Monteiro explained.

With the help of close friends and supportive professors and staff, Monteiro made it through her remaining semesters and graduated with a bachelor of arts in elementary and early childhood education on May 8. Having just completed her student teaching experience, she’s currently interviewing for an elementary teaching job near home in Philadelphia.

Her advice to future students is, “Roll with the punches. Things are going to come up, and it’s not always going to be the most fun, but if you’re determined and you know what you want, you can get through it.”