UM Graduate Leaves Legacy of Inclusion

By Kyle Spurr, UM News Service

A photo of Jessica Ponce
Jessica Ponce graduates from UM, having left a legacy of supporting inclusion on campus.

MISSOULA – When she first arrived at the University of Montana in fall 2019, Jessica Ponce admits she would not have recognized the woman she has become four years later. 

Ponce kept to herself as a freshman and focused solely on training as a member of the Griz golf team, studying and staying in her residence hall. It didn’t help that the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the golf season and many social events on the University campus. 

But during that time, the nation also was embracing a social justice and equity movement and Ponce took notice. Ponce, who is Filipino and Vietnamese, felt motivated to get involved and support people of different backgrounds at UM. 

She first joined UM’s Pacific Islanders Club, where she connected with her culture and helped organize campus events as an executive member. She then became a part of the UM's Athletic Diversity and Inclusion Committee and served as a student ambassador for the College of Humanities and Sciences. 

“My interest shifted toward taking on those roles and getting out of my shell,” she said. 

Ponce, an honors student at UM, will graduate this weekend with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in international development studies, having left a legacy of supporting inclusion on campus. 

Salena Beaumont Hill, UM director of Inclusive Excellence for Student Success, experienced first-hand Ponce’s impact. She didn’t hesitate to hire Ponce earlier this year as a student coordinator in her office, housed in UM’s Branch Center. 

“She’s just one of those people that you want to be around,” Beaumont Hill said. “I knew she had really good connections with all the students in our center.” 

Beaumont Hill admired how Ponce brought people together and connected all of her roles on different committees and clubs with UM administrators. She tasked Ponce with developing a handbook for the Inclusive Excellence for Student Success office. The handbook would create clear expectations and be a referral for students seeking support. 

Ponce led discussions and work groups in the Branch Center, a student space focused on diversity and inclusion, and developed the handbook for future generations. She did the work with help from other student leaders in the Branch Center.

“Her leadership is so gentle, and she can really relate to people,” Beaumont Hill said. “I loved watching her go through that process. I’m really grateful for her work on that.” 

Outside of her work in the Branch Center, Ponce also found a passion for inclusive efforts through UM’s International Development Studies program. After graduation Ponce hopes to eventually take her passion overseas. She will graduate with two Peace Corps Prep certificates in health and youth in development. She also applied for a summer internship with LEAP Emerge, an organization focused on Asian and Pacific Islander leadership in Asian communities. 

Ponce was inspired to pursue overseas opportunities after taking a class from Dr. Phyllis Ngai, clinical associate professor of social work and director of UM’s International Development Studies and Migration Studies.

“She showed me all these opportunities. I got so interested in her class and what she taught and her as a professor,” Ponce said. “She was a crucial part of my interest in international work.” 

Ngai said the International Development Studies minor is for students interested in developing a global mindset, exploring the world and serving the under-represented. And Ponce is passionate in all three areas, Ngai said.

“IDS is an interdisciplinary program that aims to introduce students to different perspectives on sustainable development issues,” Ngai said. “Students of diverse backgrounds like Jessica are important parts of the program as different perspectives enrich learning for all.”

Following her summer internship with LEAP Emerge, Ponce plans to apply for the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program which would allow her to teach English in Japan next year.

But before she embarks, Ponce is focused on graduation and finishing one last project. She is planning a large diversity and inclusion event Tuesday, May 9, at the Roxy Theater in Missoula to bring the campus and local community together. The Roxy Theater will have a free showing of the film, “The Fabulous Filipino Brothers,” followed by a discussion with three of the filmmakers from Los Angeles. Ponce connected the UM Office of Inclusive Excellence for Student Success with the Roxy Theater to put on the event.

She sees the event as a culmination of her time in Montana, and a way to honor Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. 

“It would be the perfect end to my college career,” Ponce said.  

Ponce has taken the past few weeks to soak in all she has achieved in college. She is a first-generation college student, and her family will come from her hometown of Beaverton, Oregon to support her at graduation. 

Ponce usually prefers to look ahead at her next goals and aspirations, but she’s allowed herself to look back and appreciate her achievements at UM. 

“I actually accomplished a lot and there are a lot of things I didn’t think I would do, so I have to give myself credit,” she said. “But there’s still more I want to do.”


Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659,