Monica Trejo

Monica Trejo
Graduate's Major: 
Graduate Degrees: 
Bachelor’s in Global Health and a Master’s in Special Education
Current Job Industry: 
Creating Your Own Tradition: Monica Trejo’s Educational Path from Hardship to Triumph
Originally published Fall 2023

Monica Trejo was not a traditional student, nor is she a traditional doctoral candidate. “My journey is my journey, and I’m very proud of where it’s taken me,” she explains.

From dropping out after her first semester at Mesa Community College, to returning while she worked a full-time job, Trejo slowly returned to the space that best contributed to her personal growth: education. Now in her All but Dissertation phase in Urban Educational Leadership at Columbia University, she has her sights set on helping others reach their full potential.

“I learned early on about the reality of education: it can set people on the path to their future,” she says.

Trejo began this journey in the small town of Dudleyville, AZ and eventually moved to South Tucson where she attended a high school with a low graduation rate. She and her friends lacked many of the educational opportunities in comparison to their larger city counterparts. Yet despite these struggles, Trejo graduated high school as the first in her family to do so.

She then moved to the Valley, wondering what to do about her future. “I didn’t have the knowledge, expertise, money, or GPA to attend college,” she says, “but I decided to take a placement test at MCC since my godfather lived in Mesa.” Starting off as a psychology major, she dropped out shortly after she began due to a lack of direction.

She was discouraged but persisted and eventually was hired full time by a pharmaceutical company. When the company would eventually offer tuition reimbursement for their employees to attend college, Trejo decided to give school another try. She returned to MCC as an anthropology major. “It was important for me to learn how my background and heritage informed who I am and how that could possibly help me guide others into their own identities,” she says.

Trejo was initially enthusiastic about being back in a learn-first environment, but quickly became defeated when she wasn’t testing well in her core classes. Yet this time, something clicked for her at MCC and kept her going past the point of dropping out again. If she had to pinpoint it, was it an instructor, class, or assignment? Or was it a combination?

“I remember vividly my college algebra class and how my professor really invested in who I am. I had a Spanish teacher who was amazing and gave me hybrid flexibility since I worked full time.” She also had a strong ecosystem of support in this round of her studies. “One of the most beautiful things about MCC is how great it is at accommodating non-traditional students and the diversity of its students,” she adds. “Going to school is hard enough and here I was working full time as well. It took me a while to find that successful formula, but you know what? Your path is not going to look like everyone else’s. I was able to find what motivates and excites me.”

Trejo’s community college pathway was critical for getting into university, which she attended at Arizona State University earning a bachelor’s in global health and a master’s in special education. Her teaching experience would come by the way of special education at the high school level, along with a stint with Teach For America. She decided to pursue her doctorate at Columbia to continue to make a difference.

“I realize how much I love learning, and I never want to stop. If I could go to school forever, I would,” she laughs.

Trejo currently serves on the Tempe Elementary School District Governing Board. Among the many goals of her term are serving on the city council for free pre-school for low-income families, as well as establishing partnerships to create mental health services for students and families to get the resources they need. Also working for the Arizona Board of Regents as the Director of Community Engagement, Trejo was an honoree in the Phoenix Business Journal’s “40 Under 40” due to her widespread accomplishments and community impact.

In her current capacity, she hopes to use her skills and resources to focus on educational attainment for other non-traditional students, military spouses, and underserved communities.

Her advice for those who may find themselves in the position she was in as a second-time MCC student is to: “not get discouraged. You can be just graduating high school or even retired. It’s never too late and school will be there for you when you’re ready. I found a home at MCC and others can, too. I would not be where I am today without it.”