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Wayfinders Program provides students opportunity to get ahead

The Wayfinders Program at Fresno State provides students with intellectual disabilities an opportunity to develop the skills necessary to live independently through a college experience.

Prior to 2011, when the program was established, there were not many avenues for students with intellectual disabilities to grow their independent development.

“There was no stretching any more of their intellectual abilities,” said Shail Lopez-Ortiz, executive director of Wayfinders. “In the past, they stayed in a small group, and then they would not develop further than that group that they always hung out with.”

In the program, students, in age ranging from 18 to 28, live at the Palazzo Apartments and are taught the skills necessary to help them keep jobs and live on their own.

“Success for us is measured by them gaining some amount of independence,” Lopez-Ortiz said.

Working not only from the Fresno State campus but also out of an apartment converted into an office at the Palazzos, Wayfinders students receive help from Fresno State students who work as volunteer peer mentors or coaches.

“We assist them with getting ready for the day, cooking their meals, doing their chores and basically learning all their independent living skills for when they’re not in the program anymore,” said staff member Stephanie Foster.

When they are not working at their jobs around Fresno, Wayfinders students also attend classes at Fresno State.

“Having help with our homework from the academic coaches really helps me a lot,” said Andrea Halliday, a freshman in the program.

Academic coaches like Micaela Ovalle, a gerontology student at Fresno State, work closely with each student and learn the best ways for helping students develop.

“Sometimes I get a student, and they may not know themselves how best they learn,” Ovalle said. “Other times, there will be students who know exactly how to learn, with reading aloud as an example.”

The program also provides its students with classes such as budgeting for money management or classes where they learn how to cook. These classes help the students with their independent development and even allow them to shop on their own.

“I go grocery shopping by myself independently,” said Drew Paveza, a sophomore in the program. “I now do that after budget class every Tuesday.”

One of the only programs of its type in California, this year’s 25 students come from many different parts of the state, ranging from the Bay Area to Southern California. For some students though, having a program like Wayfinders at Fresno State meant keeping with tradition.

“I decided to come to Fresno State because my parents came here,” freshman Marcus Espino said. “This is like a family college to me and my family.”

While the opportunity to live away from parents and live the college life are some of the many attractive components of the program, the core values of learning how to live on one’s own responsibly is something that first-year student Jeremy Pedersen said he likes about Wayfinders.

“[We] get to learn more about how to be more independent from your families and actually learn how to budget your money,” Pedersen said. “You can be on your own for the first time and not relying on your parents.”

Students like sophomore Liza Torres, who graduates from the program this spring semester, said she looks forward to living her life newly independent.

“I am so happy,” Torres said. “When I finish, I’m going to live in my own apartment with my new roommate. I am independent.”