Path to Independence students to join University commencement for first time in nine years

Students receiving their certificate from Path to Independence to join their peers at commencement

Path to Independence students to join University commencement for first time in nine years

Students receiving their certificate from Path to Independence to join their peers at commencement

Hab Arenas has a lot in common with other college students. Arenas loves sports, and interns for the University of Nevada, Reno’s football team. He likes hanging out with his friends, and he stayed connected with others through COVID-19 via virtual game nights. His family is proud that he’s graduating Friday. But if Arenas graduated last year, or three years before that, or five years before that, Arenas would not have been included in University commencement ceremonies; he would have gone to a separate ceremony.

For the very first time, students from the Path to Independence program, a two-year certificate program for students with intellectual disabilities under the Nevada Center for Excellence in Disabilities, will be graduating with the rest of the student population. Arenas will join four other students, Ben Blessing, Logan Mason, Jeff Morgan and Charlie O’Neal in graduating this Friday, May 13. They will accompany the rest of the students in the College of Education and Human Development.

“Hab took advantage of every in-person and virtual opportunity,” Jessica Keefhaver, program coordinator at the Path to Independence, said. “He would be a really great representative of our student population. He took advantage of every single opportunity he could to be a part of college.”

Since the Path to Independence is a certificate program, students previously had a separate ceremony since they were not given degrees. However, Path to Independence students were allowed to join this year since many students won’t complete a full program for a bachelor’s degree. For some, this will be their last graduation. Students like Arenas, who graduated high school in the midst of the pandemic, have never experienced a normal graduation ceremony. 

“The inclusion benefits everybody,” Keefhaver said. “If you’ve been exposed to people who have behavioral and learning differences, and then you are out in the public and see a young kid having a meltdown, maybe instead of being scared of it, you can take a minute to have a bit of compassion and understanding.”

Hab Arenas decorating his cap before graduation
Hab Arenas decorating his cap before commencement

The Path to Independence is a certificate program, but it has its own unique and difficult set of requirements in order to earn that certificate. Throughout their time at the University, students will complete specialized classes unique to the program, general classes with the rest of the student population and work at a part-time job or internship. They are paired with educational coaches for academic support, and student mentors to connect to their peers and build relationships with others.

“Our program is half-academics, but it’s also half-employment,” Nicole Wadden, employment coordinator at the Path to Independence, said. “They’re balancing work and school, which is just a ton of work. They take an employment transition class, have to do a job shadow program and then have to get a job in their second year.”

The effort pays off in the career outcomes of the graduates. A survey of Path to Independence graduates estimated that approximately 83% were employed or continuing after graduation. A survey conducted by the Special Olympics shows that a national average  of only 34% of persons with intellectual disabilities were employed, less than half the graduates employed or continuing college after completing the Path to Independence program.

Four of the five Path to Independence Graduates Line Up Next to Each Other
Four of the Five Path to Independence Graduates, Left to Right: Jeffrey Morgan, Ben Blessing, Hab Arenas, Logan Mason & his service dog Lark 

This set of program graduates were particularly special for continuing the program throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Students with intellectual disabilities were at higher risk of being socially isolated even before the pandemic, oftentimes subject to limited access to transportation. The pandemic meant, just like other students, the graduates at Path to Independence had to adapt to a new learning style, utilize new technology and maintain motivation and social connections.

“They work just as hard, if not more than any other graduate,” Keefhaver said. “They put in a lot of hours and dedication to their studies. They’ve worked through the pandemic just like everybody else. They’ve had to deal with online school, classes getting canceled, people being exposed or quarantined.”

The students and faculty from the Path to Independence program thanks everyone involved in making the dream of participating in commencement a reality. Inclusive graduation ceremonies are not available to all programs across the country, but they are becoming more common. The University's program, which began in 2013, is one of more than 300 such programs around the United States. Graduates earn a certificate in Career & Community Studies through Extended Studies.

The students from the Path to Independence program were celebrated in a convocation ceremony on Saturday, May 7. Speakers included Randall Owen, director of the Nevada Center for Excellence in Disabilities; Path to Independence program faculty, Mary Bryant (director), Jessica Keefhaver (academic coordinator), Nicole Wadden (employment coordinator); and Donald Easton Brooks, dean of the College of Education and Human Development. Students were also invited to speak about their experiences in the program and share memories they have made over the past two years.

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