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St. Thomas graduates first class from groundbreaking program for students with learning differences

Houston Chronicle 3/20/2023 Samantha Ketterer, Staff writer

In a small classroom at the University of St. Thomas, Tera Torres talks her students through the tasks left to complete before they receive their diplomas. Tommy Hughes looks down at his desk and smiles as he hears the word “graduation.” 

It’s an exciting prospect for Hughes and his 11 classmates in the university’s Pragmatic Studies program, an associate's degree in applied sciences for students with learning differences and neurological conditions, including dyslexia, anxiety, ADHD and autism. Many of them didn’t walk the stage at their high school graduations, and several said that years ago, they weren’t sure they would ever attend college, let alone finish it, because of past difficulties in school.

Every member of the inaugural class in 2021 is still in the program, university officials said. They’ll be the first Pragmatic Studies cohort to graduate at the 75-year-old private Catholic institution – and most of them hope to enter a new bachelor's program in the same subject this fall, so long as the university becomes accredited on time.

“It’s hard to think the first cohort, it’s already (done) that fast," Hughes, 20, said. "Two years feels long, but it goes by quick.” 

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Torres, their professor and the program's director, spent five years consulting with students who have special needs to plan its curriculum, and university officials believe it is one of few in the United States to have a structure that runs counter to tradition. Many higher education programs for students with learning differences are solely vocational, but Pragmatic Studies graduates at St. Thomas get prepared enter a variety of fields, Torres said.

The students are a tight group. They joke around, they know each others' habits, and they're ready to celebrate their friends' successes. (Most of the cohort is taking a celebratory cruise with Torres, the program chair, in June). They studied together for six semesters and "worked their butts off," Torres said, taking wide-ranging courses spanning life skills and the more traditional liberal arts curricula.  

Fan favorites were the “healthy relationships” and “academic strategies” courses, but the cohort also took classes including sacred scripture, criminology, environmental science and political science. Hughes, who said he struggles with executive functioning and comprehension, enjoyed his math courses the most.

"One's a math applications (course) to increase your skills about real-world math and taxes and budgeting and spending habits," he said. "The second course a year later, it taught more about investment and retirement. It wasn’t anything like what we experienced in high school – algebra, geometry. So many good classes." 

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Hughes said he always wanted to attend college. But he also knew it would be important for him to find a program that allowed for the "normal" college experience, especially ending high school in a pandemic that was anything but.

Torres, a longtime special educator, said that normality is the goal for most Pragmatic Studies students, all of whom she has found to be hard-working and intelligent. 

She began devising the program about seven years ago after watching K-12 schools undercut students with learning differences.

"I see that they’re not limited," Torres said. "It’s the systems. The systems haven’t met them where they’re at." 

Several of the associate’s students said they found a learning environment at St. Thomas unlike what they’ve ever experienced, with professors who give accommodations related to their differences but don’t treat them with less respect. Emily Mannikko, 26, said she prefers to submit assignments in essay format, while her classmate, Kasem Fletcher, does better with PowerPoint presentations. Another peer turns in sculptures.

"As long as it’s within the realm of what we’re talking about, it’s acknowledged and supported," Mannikko said.

St. Thomas officials say the varying approaches help the Pragmatic Studies students succeed in the ways that work for them. That's built confidence in many students, Torres said, helping them enter leadership positions on campus or at least feel self-sufficient for the first time in their lives.

"You have students who started, they wouldn’t look you in the eye," said Nicole Walters, founding dean of the Kolbe School of Innovation.

Now, she added, "We have parents that have said, 'You’ve changed my child, you’ve given them a life back.'"

Mannikko said she always wanted to attend college but knew she needed more academic support than most universities can give her for her general anxiety disorder. At St. Thomas, she said her professors' help has shown that they don't view her differences as a barrier.  

"It's more validated," she said.

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The second cohort has 34 students, split into classes of no more than 12, and Torres is building the third associate's cohort for fall. Several of the current students are on the dean's list, she said. 

"We say, 'Go get the brass ring,' but if nobody tells you how to get the brass ring or even tells you that there is a brass ring or where it is, then you’re not going to ever achieve that," Torres said. "It’s about providing an opportunity to people that haven’t had an opportunity because the world just forgets about them."

Chris Borgman, 26, will graduate in May alongside Hughes and Mannikko. He views it as a huge achievement – his ADHD made it difficult to finish an associate's degree at community college, but he's now on his way to a bachelor's as well as certification as a veterinary technician.

"I didn’t get to walk for my high school graduation because I finished online, so being able to actually do that this time is a nice experience," Borgman said. "It’ll be a little embarrassing, just thinking about my mom taking so many photos. It’s been so long since I’ve had to deal with that."

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