In the theater world of Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, everyone knew Marian Monta. She was the professor at the local University of Texas campus with the big heart and the salty wit—the driving force behind its theater program, the director of more than 150 shows, a winner of awards, a mentor to students, an inspiration to donors.

She was also a double Fordham graduate who, whenever she could, encouraged people to give back. “She always instilled in her [students] who ‘made it’ that it’s your responsibility, because people helped you,” said her daughter, Susan Smith.

Monta died in 2020, but will be helping Fordham theater students posthumously through a scholarship that Smith recently created out of her mother’s estate. It comes as another Fordham alumna, actress Patricia Clarkson, FCLC ’82, is also creating a scholarship for students in the Fordham Theatre program.

Smith is certain her mother would approve. “She really, really liked contributing to education and providing opportunities for students,” Smith said.

Lessons from an Irish Immigrant

Growing up in New Jersey and Virginia, Monta was “the dramatic one in the family,” an aspiring actress who later set her sights on a career in education. Its importance was brought home to her early, when her live-in grandfather would always “sit there with a book in his hand,” reading voraciously to carry on the education that was cut short during his childhood in Ireland, Smith said.

Marian Monta at Rose Hill campus
Marian Monta (left) at the Rose Hill campus in 1992. Photo courtesy of Susan Smith

Monta studied speech, English, and speech education at Fordham, earning a bachelor’s degree from the Undergraduate School of Education in 1952 and a master’s from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1953. She later earned a doctorate in theater arts from Cornell University.

Arriving at what was then Pan American University in 1971, she established the theater area within the communications department and set about building the program, sometime sewing the costumes for productions herself, according to a statement from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, as the university is now known.

‘Pay It Forward’

Over the years, she gave to charities, created a theater scholarship at the university, and helped others in numerous small ways, Smith said. One day, headed out to eat with colleagues, she gave away her brown-bag lunch to a student—and then kept bringing a lunch for him when she learned he was struggling financially.

When one of her former students—Valente Rodriguez—launched his acting career in California and tried to repay the money she had given him for moving there, she declined, telling him to “pay it forward” by funding a scholarship. And when her colleagues wanted to throw her a party upon her retirement in 2007, she declined again, citing the expense—until someone suggested turning the party into a fundraiser.

As a teacher, she was “a character,” known for blunt, colorful comments, Smith said, but she was also “incredibly loving.”

“She came across like a real hard-ass,” Smith said, “because she expected more of you than you expected of yourself.”

Scholarship gifts support the Access and Affordability priority of Fordham’s current $350 million fundraising campaign, Cura Personalis | For Every Fordham Student. Learn more and make a gift


Chris Gosier is research news director for Fordham Now. He can be reached at (646) 312-8267 or [email protected].