By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Education opens the door to endless opportunities.
That’s a lesson Beth Montag learned early in life.
Her mother Betty never had the chance to attend college or even complete high school, and she didn’t want her children to have the same regrets.
“She always hated that,” Montag recalled. “Mom was always very adamant that we all get our education. It’s just one of those things in our family.”
One of five siblings, Montag graduated from Southern Illinois University in 1984, majoring in biological sciences with minors in chemistry and microbiology.
A lot has happened in her life since then, but the University of Nebraska at Kearney employee never forgot her mother’s words of wisdom.
Montag was 21 years old when she earned her bachelor’s degree, a young woman ready to pursue her dream of working in scientific research.
“I love investigating and figuring out how things work,” said Montag, who planned to continue her education at Tulane University.
Her future husband Jeff was already living in New Orleans at the time. They met at SIU, where he earned a master’s degree in rehabilitation psychology. Jeff graduated first, then accepted a position at a rehabilitation hospital working with stroke patients and people with spinal cord injuries.
A former gymnast, he sustained a spinal cord injury while preparing for a competition in high school and was paralyzed from the neck down. He still has arm movement, but the injury impacted his hand function and ability to walk.
When they married in 1985, the couple never expected to have children.
“That’s what he had always been told,” Montag explained. “His physiatrist always said, ‘No chance. No chance.’ So then, of course, I got pregnant.”
Although few quadriplegics can have children, the couple ended up with three, and Montag home-schooled them all. That meant she had to put her own education and career plans on the back burner.
“For me, I knew the science field would be a 110% commitment, and trying to blend that with a family was going to be very, very difficult,” said Montag, who’s worked in medical records, medical equipment and pharmaceutical positions over the years.
The family moved to Kearney in 1992 when Jeff became director of outpatient rehabilitation at a local hospital. Like her late mother, Montag made sure her children had the opportunity to attend college.
“We put every extra dollar we had into their college funds,” she said.
Now, their son Ben is a nuclear engineer in Wamego, Kansas; daughter Kassandra is an award-winning writer who lives in Omaha; and daughter Miranda is a neonatal nurse in Omaha.
Montag works in the English Language Institute (ELI) at UNK, where she serves as an instructor and coordinator. She first joined the institute as an adjunct instructor in 2010 and spent five years there before she and Jeff relocated to Omaha, then Lawrence, Kansas.
When they returned to Kearney in late 2017, she rejoined ELI as a part-time instructor while also working in other positions on campus. She accepted the ELI coordinator position in 2019.
“I’ve always loved teaching in ELI,” Montag said. “I really enjoy using education as a tool to help our students discover more about themselves, discover more about the world and enhance their opportunities. It really does open people’s minds to different possibilities.”
BACK TO SCHOOL
Through her position at UNK, Montag provides English language training for international students preparing to pursue a degree and local community members looking to improve their employability and communication skills.
As a lifelong learner, though, she always wanted to do more.
That’s why she enrolled in UNK’s online learning, design and technology master’s program.
“It’s always been in the back of my mind to do,” she said. “I always wanted to continue my education.”
The COVID-19 pandemic gave her an extra push.
ELI has always been a face-to-face program – that’s the best way to learn a new language – but Montag and the other instructors were forced to pivot to an online format in summer 2020. Most of them had never used the university’s cloud-based learning management system before, so it was a big adjustment.
“When you’re out of school for that long, it’s kind of like the scarecrow syndrome,” Montag said, referencing a character from “The Wizard of Oz.” “After a while, you start thinking you don’t have a brain. He didn’t have that little piece of paper that told him he had a brain.”
Montag started taking classes in fall 2020 and finished the master’s program this summer, proving she has the skills to effectively harness the power of technology and lead in a 21st-century classroom.
“Although ELI is a face-to-face program, that doesn’t mean we can’t bring technology into the classroom,” she said. “We’ve been reluctant to do that, just because we didn’t know about it. This degree helped open my eyes to the different things we can be doing in the classroom.”
Montag chose the leadership in instructional technology concentration, which incorporates elements of curriculum planning. She’ll use that knowledge to develop lessons tailored specifically to the needs of students studying at UNK. For instance, instead of using curriculum from England for the aviation English class, she can design her own.
“Those are the kinds of things from this master’s program that really apply to this job,” she said.
A master’s degree also allows Montag to extend her impact beyond ELI. This fall, she’ll teach a learning skills class that prepares freshmen for success in future UNK courses.
“Having that master’s degree allows me to dabble in a little bit of this and a little bit of that, which is good. It keeps me from the rocking chair,” Montag said with a laugh.
At age 60, the mother of three and grandmother of four decided not to attend last week’s summer commencement ceremony. Instead, she celebrated her accomplishment at home with family and friends.
“My kids have been super supportive because they know how much I pushed them in education and kept telling them to aim higher,” Montag said. “Whatever your goal is, just go for it.”