Small Town to Big University: A Journey in Transition

Authors: Belinda Fayard, Parent and Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments (TSVI)

Keywords: transition, post-secondary education, TSBVI EXIT Program, PATHS program, Postsecondary Access and Training in Human Services, Texas Workforce Commission, TWC, independent living, volunteering

Abstract: A parent discusses her daughter Megan’s journey from a small-town high school to the PATHS program at Texas A&M University.

My 19-year-old daughter, Megan, is living her dream! She’s living independently at Texas A&M University and attending classes to achieve her goal of becoming a teaching assistant. Megan has a visual impairment and cerebral palsy, and it’s been quite a journey to get here. Megan and many individuals in her life have done so much to get to this point, and we hope that by sharing our journey, others can find ways to live their dreams also.

Growing up, Megan received the services of a Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments (TVI) as well as Orientation and Mobility (O&M) training in her home school districts. Vision services began as soon as we brought her home from the hospital, and O&M began in third grade. She’s had some amazing instructors in her life and a supportive family system who continued the plan at home, expecting nothing but hard work. We, as parents, knew that the school team couldn’t provide everything our child might need in the limited time they spent with her. We spent many weekends planning out routes and walking them repeatedly until Megan was comfortable navigating on her own.

During Megan’s ninth-grade year, we started narrowing down her career options and planning for what would come after high school. She secured a volunteer job at a local elementary school within walking distance of the high school. We mapped out a route and practiced many times on the weekends to build her confidence with walking the half-mile through town on her own. The first day of the job, her O&M instructor traveled with her, and it was a huge success from then on. Megan volunteered two afternoons a week, and she had to travel there independently, in all kinds of weather. As with any new experience, Megan ran into the occasional obstacle, such as a downed tree or a moving truck blocking the sidewalk, but she problem-solved on her own, in the moment, and got to her job on time.

At the elementary school, Megan split her time between assisting in the art class, library, office, and in a kindergarten class. She loved it all! She expanded her volunteering to include an after-school program once a week at a different elementary school. Megan got some terrific exposure to working and discovered that she loved teaching. She also gained the self-confidence it took to travel alone in a downtown setting to get to work on time. Megan was recognized at one of the elementary schools as Volunteer of the Year for the 2019–2020 school year, and she hopes to be employed there one day.

The next step on the journey was the Experiences in Transition (EXIT) program at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI). Megan and her TVI applied for senior year, and she was accepted. This, in partnership with an Adulting 101 class through Easter Seals, funded by the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC), helped her work on independent living, job readiness, and technical skills. While at TSBVI, Megan moved into an apartment on campus and began working on using Lyft with her O&M instructor. She also participated in weekly cooking and cleaning lessons in her apartment. In about six weeks, Megan was truly managing to cook three daily meals and clean an efficiency apartment by herself.

During this year in the EXIT program, Megan applied for acceptance to the Postsecondary Access and Training in Human Services (PATHS) program at Texas A&M University. Through her volunteer work, she decided that becoming a teaching assistant would be the perfect job for her. PATHS offers a certificate for a Direct Support Professional—Paraprofessional. The application process was rigorous. We submitted a video essay, and Megan had to interview alone. The staff at PATHS works hard to ensure students are self-motivated and willing to put in the work to be there.

The PATHS program began in July 2021. Megan moved into an on-campus dorm in College Station for the four-week summer session. She had one roommate, but each of them had their own bedroom. Days started early, around seven o’clock in the morning, and often finished at seven o’clock or eight o’clock in the evening. Imagine how exhausting it was for these young adults to be walking around campus in the Texas summer heat. Megan’s watch tracked her steps, and her shortest day’s walk was four miles. The longest was ten miles in one day! It was all worth it, though, as she not only learned how to navigate campus but she also learned where critical landmarks and cues could be found. They learned how to use the Aggie Spirit bus system and how to ask for help. The lessons were fun and sometimes disguised as a scavenger hunt.

Students were typically in small groups with a student advisor when traveling, but Megan did experience getting lost a few times. We expected that might happen, and Megan learned that she had to ask for help and then remember what the person giving directions had said. This was tricky, and it took a few tries to get the hang of it, but she gained the self-confidence to know that she could do it! A great example of one assignment Megan had was to find a doctor that was on the bus route and who accepted her insurance. She then had to travel by bus to the doctor’s office, document the location with a photo, and provide a description of the route. She had to do this same assignment for a grocery store, hospital, clothing store, recreation activity, and pharmacy. We felt this was such a great life skill that all of our kids should know!

After surviving the busy summer session, Megan had to work with her peers to select a roommate and an off-campus dorm. Texas Workforce Commission helped with funding, and in the fall semester, Megan lived in an off-campus dorm-style apartment with two roommates. One was a friend from the PATHS program, and one was someone the girls didn’t know. These young ladies learned to be respectful of one another’s privacy and shared the space. Megan traveled independently by bus to the campus each day for classes. She met with her peer advisor weekly for support and continued to work on all of the skills that will help her become a successfully employed young lady who can live independently.

In addition to the classes at Texas A&M, Megan traveled by city bus to attend a weekly class at the Brazos Valley Center for Independent Living. Megan also met with an Orientation and Mobility specialist once a month to work on any needed skills or challenging routes. Megan recently traveled to her practicum site, where she will begin volunteering in the spring. This is an off-campus business, so she had to use the city bus to get there. Between the fine folks from the PATHS program teaching her how to use the city bus system and the skills she’s learned through O&M training, Megan was able to map out the route with her instructors, then travel successfully with a peer.

All of the work that Megan did to prepare for the PATHS program has been challenging, and the PATHS program itself is challenging, but it’s all so worth it. As a parent, I would encourage you to push yourself to let your child try new things. You can ask the staff supporting them to provide their best service, but as a family, you also have to dive in and practice during evenings and weekends and expect your child to contribute to chores in the home. Learning to do chores will directly translate to living independently as an adult. When living alone, you need to be able to cook, manage medicine, take out the garbage, clean your bathtub, use an unfamiliar washing machine and dryer to do the laundry, and most importantly, problem-solve. Your child needs to figure out how to handle unexpected roadblocks and still move ahead. Just because it’s hot outside or it’s raining doesn’t mean you skip work that day. You still have to move forward, and you just might have to work a little harder to get there.

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