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Determined first-generation student finds faith, community amid adversity

Matias Montanes, a first-generation international student from Spain, will graduate from Abilene Christian University this weekend, taking with him much more than a diploma. 

A tennis scholarship brought Matias to Abilene, Texas – a place he knew nothing about. Despite minimal knowledge of the English language, he traveled to the U.S. with a passion for tennis and a plan to major in business management. However, early into his first tennis season, he suffered a career-ending injury that served as a detour for his athletic plans.

Still, he remained focused on his studies while participating in Lynay, a service and leadership program, and working in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. His leadership skills and adaptability did not go unnoticed, as an unexpected opportunity emerged – an assistant coaching position offered by head tennis coach Juan Nuñez (’09). Matias, still a first-year student, was hesitant to take on the role of coaching students who were older than him, but after taking the chance, he fell in love with teaching the sport to others. 

Through his work with the tennis program, he encountered two individuals whose faith and unwavering spirit inspired him – Slade Sullivan (’95), ACU’s general counsel and vice president, and his wife, Dava Lynn (Bridgewater ’98). They crossed paths when two of the Sullivan children took tennis lessons with Matias. 

“I was impressed by how well-educated they were. I wondered how it was possible to be such great people, even when they were so young! So, I started asking questions,” said Matias, about Griffin, now a sophomore biochemistry major at ACU, and his younger brother, Nolan, now a junior at Abilene High. “That’s when they introduced me to their parents, who started to teach me about God – not with words, but with actions.” 

The Sullivans invited him into their home for weekly meals and introduced him to Christianity, which became a guiding light in his life.

Matias enjoyed coaching and gaining new perspectives, but he wanted to push himself even further and decided to pursue an online law degree in Spain, while also interning in the athletics department as a compliance officer. Between coaching, attending classes for two universities, and working full-time as a sports consultant, there were many sleepless nights, but he persisted and learned the importance of enjoying each moment. 

Today, Matias is preparing to welcome his family to Abilene for the first time this weekend as he walks across the stage, but also as he publicly declares his faith – he’s asked Slade and Dava Lynn to baptize him on Sunday.

“I’m excited that my parents will finally get to travel to the States to see me graduate, but I’m more grateful that they will be there for my baptism and meet the family that has been a blessing to me throughout these years,” Matias said.

Beyond the inspiration of the Sullivan family, coaches and the greater Abilene community, Matias also relied on College of Business Administration faculty Dr. Phil Vardiman (’76) and Daniel Garcia (’07), who have guided him in his academic and spiritual journeys. 

“From the beginning, we had a special connection, not only because of our shared first language but because of his eagerness to learn, his networking drive, and how he involves others in his dreams,” Garcia said. 

With only a year left to complete his law degree, Matias will stay in his role as a sports consultant at Global College USA, where he helps student-athletes find scholarships in the U.S. He said he also plans to use his degrees to continue learning and to take the time to live in each moment.

Senia Overstreet

Dec. 15, 2023

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