Looking ahead

Keynote speaker and Texas A&M PATHS Certificate Program graduate Myaa Valentine, left, hands the Director’s Award to Ellie Hefner during the PATHS commencement ceremony Monday in the Bethancourt Ballroom at the Memorial Student Center.

On Monday, 26 students graduated from Texas A&M’s PATHS Certificate Program, which was developed in 2010 through the university’s Center on Disability and Development to help students with disabilities gain the skills they need to live independently.

“I now just see a future ahead of me, and I’m excited to see what faith has in store for me,” said new PATHS graduate Ellie Hefner, who received the program’s Director’s Award.

Hefner was shy and bullied while attending school in Montgomery, she said, but now she plans to become a paraprofessional so she can help other students who may be going through a similar experience. Though she calls her family her rock, she told the parents in the audience that the graduates do not need them to hold their hands.

“Instead, let us grow on our own two feet, as we are not the same scared college students that we once were,” she said. “We are now more independent and educated thanks to our wonderful director, our teachers, instructional aides and advisers. They taught us many wonderful things and provided many useful tools that we will carry on for the rest of our lives.”

Each person who has graduated through the PATHS program has struggled with their individual disability, said Cara Weber, keynote speaker and PATHS graduate. Through the program, she said, they have learned how to overcome limitations or obstacles.

“I would not be successful today if the program had not helped me,” Weber said. “ … Because of the PATHS program I am living independently here in Bryan. I am able to schedule the bus to pick me up or call an Uber to get me where I need to go. I can write my own checks, and with a little help, budget my money for utilities, groceries and a little fun.”

Hefner reminded the audience that the program graduates have a voice, and asked family members to let them use it and to make their own decisions.

“It’s important to us to face our own challenges, because if you don’t let us, we will never learn and grow,” she said. “And life would be boring if we didn’t have challenges.”

PATHS program director Tracy Glass said many students are not used to having the power to make their own decisions, and the program helps them work through the decision-making process and gain new skills they will need to be a dependable employee.

“When they start growing and gaining those skills to becoming those types of employees, and those types of people who are standing on their own two feet, calling their own shots, and doing their own thing just like anybody else, that’s the best moment of all when we see that,” Glass said.

Glass said parents should not expect the same students that first started in the PATHS program.

“They’re going to be totally different people now, because for a year they’ve been making their own decisions,” Glass said. “So many times, there’s been someone there to swoop in and catch them when they fall. We let them fall. We let them experience the pain of procrastination. … We have supports in place to help them recoup, kind of build their confidence again.”

What makes the program different from others, Glass said, is the PATHS program staff members do not view the students as any different than the other thousands of Aggies on campus.

“We look at them for what they can do,” Glass said. “We see what they can do, and eventually we get them to where they can see what they can do.”

“Everyone’s normal is different,” Hefner said. “What might be normal to me might be different to you.”

For more information, go to paths.tamu.edu.

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