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Accepting responsibility and becoming literate are key to student’s turnaround


Student Joe Monteith talks at TEDxDU Xpress on Jan. 20.


Joe Monteith says the lowest and highest points in his life both involve entering institutions.

The lowest was the day he stepped foot in the U.S. federal prison in Fremont County, Colo., also known as the Alcatraz of the Rockies.

The highest point was the day he learned he was accepted to an educational institution — the University of Denver — a year after serving four years behind bars.

Monteith, a 30-year-old second-year economics and business major from Pueblo, Colo., spent 2004–08 in prison for possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine.

The obvious question: What went wrong in his life?

Monteith’s first answer — and all subsequent answers — will omit blame of any kind to anyone or anything except himself.

“I don’t blame anyone for anything,” Monteith says. “I do have issues in my past. I could blame a lot of things outside of myself, but I won’t. It’s easy to blame. My parents are great people. All parents can be better … no parent is perfect. And, I could blame the school system. When I graduated from high school, I was reading at a fifth grade level. I was functionally illiterate. But I’m a result of my choices. I was greedy and didn’t know any other way to get what I wanted.”

One of those choices came when he was 15.

“I’d sell beer in high school,” Monteith says. “I’d buy a keg of beer, go to parties and sell cups of beer.”

He sold marijuana, too.

“Not much,” he says, “some here and there after selling the alcohol.”

After high school, at age 19, Monteith started his own used car business. On the lot, he remembers confronting a man who was looking to sell drugs to his cousin.

“I thought that was terrible and wrong, and I told him to leave,” Monteith recalls.

But within a year, Monteith became the same drug pusher he despised. That cousin, it turns out, shared with him some creative alternatives to making money.

“My business was strapped for cash and I realized I could make good money selling drugs,” Monteith says. “I never paid attention to the hypocrisy.”

The profit motive took hold. He was making upwards of $10,000 a month.

“There was a lot of money to be made, and there’s a feeling you get when you start selling that people looked up to you,” he says. “It just gets worse and worse, and the more money you see, the more you want to do it, and I’d tell myself if I didn’t do it someone else will.”

And he did sell it — for five years, until federal investigators raided his house and gathered enough evidence to put him away.

It was in prison that Monteith slowly began scraping together the pieces of his life to form something he could be proud of. He began teaching himself to read and write. He says he’d never actually read a book before prison.

“You have 24 hours a day, and I realized I wanted to do something with that time, to learn,” Monteith says. “I wanted to learn.”

After a year in prison, he came to understand something else: “I started realizing the pain I had caused people, that I wasn’t a good influence … I was a negative influence on other people’s lives. It pained me, and I felt terrible.”

After prison, he spent a few months in a halfway house, landed a job at Play-It-Again Sports in Colorado Springs and started taking classes at Pikes Peak Community College. That’s where he says his economics professor, Michael Foret, began encouraging him to apply to DU.

“He just kept talking to me about it and I finally agreed to apply” he says. “I owe him a lot.”

Monteith was accepted to DU in 2009.

It was Monteith’s ability to take responsibility for his past actions that convinced Todd Rinehart, DU’s assistant vice chancellor and director of admission, to admit Monteith to the school.

“He took full responsibility for his past and had demonstrated over a period of years that he was prepared to enter a university community,” Rinehart says. “Joe is … a special person who has transformed his life through great discipline, dedication and motivation.”

Rinehart added that all of DU’s admission decisions are based on “a holistic review of an applicant’s file, taking into account many factors such as grades, test scores, essay, recommendations, course selection and trends in performance.”

Monteith says he’s grateful to DU for accepting him.

“It was most certainly the highest point of my life,” Monteith says. “DU is an incredible place, amazing, and I have the highest admiration for it. Now I think about all the people who helped me get here and am working toward being able to have a positive impact on others.”

He’s wasted little time doing that. Monteith is now the first undergraduate to serve as lead tutor for DU’s Learning Effectiveness Program, which offers support to DU students with learning disabilities.

“I love working there,” Monteith says. “It’s helping me build a new life and to start having a good influence on people … helping people achieve. I’ve come to realize that people support people who are giving and caring.”

Monteith says if he could tell young people just one thing about leading a life that’s important, it would be this: “You have to accept responsibility. Life is a gift and it doesn’t owe you anything; you only get what you earn.”

Monteith gave a talk about his experiences Jan. 20 at TEDxDU Xpress, a series of student-organized luncheons. Future luncheons will be held in February and April.

TED is a nonprofit devoted to “ideas worth spreading.” At TED conferences, leading scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs and artists present their ideas in 18 minutes or less. TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. DU will host its second local event — TEDxDU— on May 13.

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