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One Day At a Time

by Caitlin Hofen

“Hey, Hope’s been in a car accident.” This phrase changed a young girl’s life.

What she describes as an ‘interesting childhood’ started with Montana McCullough’s little sister being born around the time Montana turned three. A year later, her parents divorced and soon after, her mother remarried. Montana lived a pretty normal life until the one day that completely altered her way of life as she knew it.

May 13, 2006, is a day Montana plays over and over again in her head. The Saturday before Mother’s Day, an eleven-year-old Montana decided not to join the family in going to Wichita for a birthday celebration, opting to stay with her grandmother in Kiowa, Kans. Described as a ‘freak accident,’ her mother had to make a very sudden stop which resulted in the vehicle rolling over. Everyone else was fine, but Montana’s mother, Hope, did not survive.

A family friend arrived at her grandmother’s house and delivered the tragic news. As the family prepared to rush to the hospital, Montana recalls, “I was sitting in the car with my uncle, and he was trying to assure me that everything was going to be okay. And then we heard my aunt scream. And it was one of those screams that will stick with me until I die. I was in shock and it took me until the next day to realize what had actually happened.”

In the following days, Montana’s biological father and stepmother came from Nebraska to take her and her little sister away from the only family they ever knew. The girls then endured a yearlong custody battle across state lines while still grieving for their mother.

A few years after the passing of her mother, Montana’s stepfather remarried and the situation became less ideal for Montana. A few days before Christmas break of her senior year of high school, Montana made the decision to move out due to tension with her stepfather’s wife. Montana knew she had to make a decision.

 “I went to the house and picked up as much as I could. I moved in with my aunt and I finished high school, which is something few people ever thought I was going to be able to accomplish. They thought I would either drop out or just never finish because of losing my mom. I proved them wrong on that.”

  Originally an Ag Education major, Montana discovered education was not the career suited for her.

“I figured out it wasn’t for me. Unfortunately, that was year three or four into my college years.”

At the recommendation of a friend, Montana took a few mass communication classes and “absolutely fell in love with it.” After switching her major, Montana graduated with a Mass Communications degree with a minor in Animal Science.

 “After six, very long years of college, I finally got through it and I graduated in May.”

Montana’s motivation to continue her college education and be successful was a tribute to her mother. Also, no one in her family had attended a four-year college.

 “I wanted to be one of the first in my family to graduate from a four-year university.”

 Together, in May 2019, Montana and her little sister, Taylor, became the first in their family to graduate with bachelor’s degrees.

“Trying to push through all the obstacles,” is what Montana considered her biggest challenge to get through college.

“While in college I was working two, three or four jobs at a time to try and pay bills because I am financially independent.”

“It has made me a much stronger person. I have become a lot more resilient because of my hardships. I’ve realized that everybody goes through struggles in their lives, and maybe me telling my story could help somebody see that, ‘Hey she’s been through this and made it through college. Why can’t I do the same?’ I have met so many amazing people through the obstacles I have overcome.” 

“Montana is one of the hardest working students I have ever had the opportunity of teaching. She has faced many obstacles in her life but she always finds ways to overcome. She is tenacious and loyal. She will do anything to help people around her. If you need her, she will show up. No questions asked,” expressed Allison Zimmerman, an instructor of Mass Communication at Northwestern.

In hopes of going full-time into the radio industry, Montana would like to deejay her own show and eventually broadcast for sporting events.

 “Don’t give up. Honestly, there were several times when I wanted to give up going to school, but I had a lot of people who said ‘Montana, you can get through this, you know you can. You have this little mental block.’ You have to take it one day at a time.”


This story was first published in Annual Report 2019.

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