Tierra’s NEXUS Students — Making College to Career A Reality

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ostsecondary education is an endeavor only the bravest of brave pursue—endless assignments and books to read, countless exams and sleepless nights, new professors every 15 weeks and never- ending project lists. Going to college is a choice most people make knowing that the road ahead will be a challenging one. For some, the choice is encouraged, expected even. For others, college is considered downright impossible and encouragement, aside from family members, is often absent altogether.

Felipe Alfaro, Nina Adel, Grace Hahn, and Rocio Gutierrez are four phenomenal individuals who understand what it means to defy the impossible. Along with 140 other students, these four students in Tierra’s NEXUS College to Career Program are surpassing all expectations, and discovering their greatest intellectual and personal potential; despite what they were told, or not told, they could do.

Since its inception in 2007, NEXUS has provided academic and professional skills mentorship to hopeful undergrads who experience the program through the process of a three phase
model – Discovery, Education, and Internship. With partnerships at Los Angeles Valley, Mission, and Pierce Colleges, as well as West Valley Occupational Center, and California State University Northridge (CSUN), individuals with developmental disabilities are obtaining certifications and degrees, and ultimately transitioning into meaningful employment.

Meet Felipe

Reflecting on his fourth and final week in Discovery, 25 year-old Felipe Alfaro exclaims, “I toured CSUN, Pierce College, and West Valley, but I really liked CSUN!” While it’s only been one month for Felipe and his cohorts, the skills and knowledge obtained during Discovery will impact NEXUS students the rest of their lives. NEXUS Program Director, Gricelda Gonzalez, explains, “Discovery is an intense phase, and the first 30 days are critical for our clients. They explore local industries for prospective employ- ment/volunteer opportunities, discuss and visit colleges, and map out a plan to help them visualize their goals through PATH: Planning Alternative Tomorrows with Hope.”

In 2010, Felipe enrolled in the LAUSD Center for Advanced Transition Services Program (CATS). While it was a good experi- ence, he confesses, “After graduating in 2013, I didn’t do anything for three years. I was doing well, but Regional Center realized I needed support. So, I came to Tierra, and now, I’ve completed the Discovery Phase and am going to Mission College.”
For clients like Felipe, the individualized support and encourage- ment from Tierra’s NEXUS staff is what propels them to continue moving forward. NEXUS Intake Coordinator Aaron Riner, shares, “There are no barriers to anything, as long as you have a good support system. We are always here to motivate students, so they can do well and believe that each one of them is capable of accom- plishing greatness.”

Once the Educational phase begins, life after Discovery is rigorous, and ever changing class schedules become a reality. Nina Adel and Grace Hahn are currently living and breathing this experience, as they dedicate their time to focusing on their studies – a concept they were led to believe unattainable, until coming to Tierra.

Meet Nina

When Nina began NEXUS, she recalls her excitement, but admits that college seemed daunting. “I checked out the businesses in the area, but I didn’t want to go to the campuses.” When asked why she lacked motivation to visit local colleges, Nina shares, “I had spent so many years in high school being known as my sister’s ‘little sister.’ No one even bothered to ask my name, so I said, never again! I also had a high school counselor tell me, ‘College might not be a very good option for you, but I can help you get a job in a grocery store.”

Flash forward to the present day, and we find 27-year old Nina close to obtaining her Bachelor of Science degree in Sociology from CSUN. After graduating from high school a year early, Nina joined NEXUS and earned an A.A. degree at Pierce while interning in the administrative offices at Valley Presbyterian Hospital. These accomplishments prove that Nina’s high school career counselor underestimated her abilities to pursue an education that would lead to a valued career. The harsh reality is that others, like Nina, experience lack of encouragement during their high school years, when it comes to the notion of post- secondary education.

Tierra College to Career Instructor, Karina Tovar, shares, “Nina’s story is not unusual. She, like others, had many people discourage her from attending college while handing her options to take the easy way out. But, Nina chose to stick with school and is going places. Yes, there have been challenges, but she overcomes them and does not let her disability define her.”

Meet Grace

When Grace Hahn began NEXUS four years ago, she recalls, “I was nervous, and didn’t really want to go to college. After high school, I wanted to get a job. I wasn’t motivated to attend college because I wasn’t encouraged in high school. However, my mom always encouraged me, and my regional center counselor really pushed me too. I joined NEXUS and did it. My journey was a tough one at first. I started out taking just four units but now I’m taking 13.”

Currently recognized on two Dean Honor Rolls, Grace is balancing a full time academic schedule at Los Angeles Mission College, while working as a recreational assistant on campus. “I’m getting straight A’s, and playing softball for the Mission College Women ‘s Softball team, too!”

Tierra College to Career Instructor, Conrad Ruiz, recalls, “Grace and I started this journey together. My first day as an instructor, I met her while we were touring the Getty. The one trait that I have seen in Grace over the years is motivation. I’ve witnessed her gradual change to not only have an interest in Child Development, but athletics, as well. She went from watching sports, to playing them.”

NEXUS North Valley Client Services Manager, Diala Dennison, adds, “What I’ve always loved about Grace is her positive attitude… With it, she can accomplish so much, and already has. She convinces me she can do anything, and then does it. It’s an excellent trait that I hope Grace never loses sight of.”

Meet Rocio

Once students reach the final phase of NEXUS and enter Internship, the personal and academic growth they have gained prepares them for professional acumen. As NEXUS intern, Rocio Gutierrez, organizes the welcome area at the Child Development Institute Learning Center in Canoga Park, she carefully checks the iPads on the main counter, making sure that each one is set to the correct sign-in page. When reflecting on her time in NEXUS, Rocio expresses, “My journey has been so incredible. I never thought I would end up here. It’s been three years since I’ve been in NEXUS, and it has been a wonderful experience.”

Like Nina and Grace, when Rocio first began, she admits that she wasn’t too keen about going to college. “I was hesitant, because I didn’t want to continue going to school. In all honesty, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and never really thought about college. But, when I got more information about NEXUS from Regional Center, I decided it was the right step, so I gave it a try.”

After completing Discovery, Rocio was exhilarated. “I saw businesses, visited campuses, and was like ‘Wow!!! I can really do this!’ I ended up attending Los Angeles Mission College, and got my certification in Computer Applications and Office Technology. It was very challenging, at first. College is tough – really tough, and I had a lot of struggles along the way, but I managed to work hard and get through it.”

Tierra Instructor, Felipe Rameriz, recognizes Rocio’s hard work as an intern, remarking, “She is very dedicated and willing to overcome barriers. If she has problems, she looks for solutions. Rocio is also good with changing environments without hesitation, and that’s a great quality.”

For Rocio, the path she made for herself is a promising one. Her academic accolades, vocational experience and bilingual skillset – fluent in both English and Spanish – have shaped her into a desirable candidate for full-time employment. While Rocio always had the ability, the motivation to pursue postsecondary education stemmed from the belief it that was possible.

NEXUS Internship Client Services Manager, Peeriya Supparkpisut, says, “Clients surprise me every day. Let them do the work, let them try, and they will be okay. Just believe in them. Many will struggle, but we at Tierra support them, and they often surprise themselves.”

Felipe, Nina, Grace, and Rocio are all remarkable individuals who are paving the way for excellence and endless possibilities. When asked what they would say to future NEXUS students, the message from all four participants was the same – don’t be afraid.

Time and time again, students in Tierra’s NEXUS College to Career Program set the bar high for others, regardless of the disability. “Other members of my family attended college but were unable to complete their studies,” shares Nina Adel. “I was the first person to earn an A.A. and will soon be the first to graduate from CSUN. I want my mom to see one of her children walk across the stage at CSUN.” She also adds, “I often tell other NEXUS students, there will be people out there that will say negative things to you, and there may be moments when it seems so hard, you’ll think you want to quit. But, don’t give up. It will all be worth it, in the end.”

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