Sasha Tiernan’s family didn’t think she would ever go to college, much less complete a program.
Tiernan, 24, of Albuquerque, said her family thought that the best she could do with her diagnosed condition of cerebral palsy was to live in a group home and work at a menial job.
Instead, Tiernan has been living in a college apartment and has earned three certificates of training in animal care, child care and office skills. She also has worked at the Spring River Park and Zoo in Roswell and plans to start an associate’s degree program in the fall.
“I am going to become an educational associate,” she said, “and when I am an educational associate, I can work on my bachelor’s.”
Tiernan is one of 44 graduates this year of the Special Services Occupational Training Program at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell. More than 1,200 students have completed the program since its inception in 1986.
A Thursday afternoon graduation ceremony drew more than a hundred family members and friends to the Performing Arts Center at the ENMU-R campus to see their loved ones cross the stage and to hear about the lessons learned by a parent, two student speakers and special needs advocate Sam White.
White is also a Texas A & M University information technology director, a former New Mexico Military Institute student, and the parent of a special needs teen planning to attend ENMU-R in the future.
“Whether you want to be or not, by completing these certificates, you are leaders in the disability community,” White told the graduating students. “You are models for employers and role-models for other employees. Every unique person in this country needs to know of your success and that there are places and programs to help enable that success for you and others.”
The ENMU-R program, described by Director Leah Lucier and parent and former educator Yvette Werner as unique in the state, helps people diagnosed with disabilities gain both vocational skills and independent living skills.
“Most programs offer only one or the other,” Lucier said, who added that she has conducted research about such programs across the nation. “We are one of the few that offers both.”
White described what he called the five unique elements of the ENMU-R program: In-class vocational training, practicum experiences at employer sites in the community, life skills training, independent skills training and on-campus living.
“You can’t get that any place else but here,” he said.
To be eligible for the program, people must be 18 or older and diagnosed with a disability. The conditions in the student population are varied, from vision impairment to autism to cerebral palsy to Down syndrome to Attention Deficit Disorder, Lucier said.
Students enrolled in the 50-credit hour program can earn occupational training certificates in such employment areas as child care, veterinary care, office skills, stocking and merchandising, and food service. The job placement rate for those who complete the program is 79 percent, Lucier said.
Many, such as Tiernan, earn more than one certificate. This year’s group of 44 graduates includes 18 who received their second, third or fourth certificates. The employment rate for those with two or more certificates is 88 percent, according to Lucier.
Local employers participating in the practicum job training include veterinary clinics, day care centers, hotels, public and private schools, retail store chains and nonprofit organizations, as well as different departments at ENMU-R.
“They do that because they want to help our community and help these individuals,” Lucier said, explaining that employers do not receive any special benefits for taking on students.
The vast majority of students also live on campus in dormitories or apartments and receive part of their independent living skills instruction in those settings.
Werner gave her heartfelt thanks to ENMU-R for providing her son Jared an opportunity of a college education she thought he would never have.
She recalled that when Jared’s older brother was deciding among colleges that Jared said he also was looking forward to college. Werner said she remembers having to tell him that he might never have that chance and then “cried her eyes out” later that day. Then she learned about the ENMU-R program.
“Please accept our gratitude for all you do to provide a safe place for our students to follow their dreams,” she said to the faculty and staff of the university.
Student speakers Holly Wampler, 26, of Colorado Springs, Colo., and Miranda Scheidt, 24, of South Lake, Texas, also thanked teachers and peers. They said the program had given them not only vocational skills but the recognition that they are capable of more than they thought.
Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.