By Marilynn Young | LB Indy
“I got in!” Andrew Arredondo, 21, shrieked with glee after receiving a call from a UCLA Extension coordinator notifying him of his acceptance to the two-year certificate program this fall.
While many high school seniors are experiencing similar memorable moments opening letters of acceptance to college, Arredondo’s took a bit longer in coming because he copes with autism. Being independent and having a job, “just like every other kid to grow up and live on his own, ” has always been his dream, said his mother, local resident Susan Arredondo.
For Arredondo, the UCLA program “opens endless opportunities for him; it’s his ticket out,” said his mother, who was able to stay home while raising her son and work as sales representative for a water company.
She is hopeful he’s measurably closer to achieving his goal, which he describes as “to move out of my mom and dad’s house and have all the things I want: a house and a boat.”
Andrew was diagnosed with autism as a pre-schooler after his teacher noticed that he repeated what she said by singing and didn’t want to sit with a group. He took advantage of the Laguna Beach Unified School District’s specialized classes for students with intellectual disabilities or special needs at El Morro Elementary, Thurston Middle School and the high school as well as extra occupational and speech therapy offered through the district. This year, a record 322 special needs students are enrolled, a 38 percent increase since 2006, district records show. “There is no questions families are coming because of our programs,” said Irene White, the district’s special education services director.
Currently, Arredondo is enrolled in a Saddleback College post-high school transition program for the developmentally disabled. Functional Unique Training Utilizing Resource Employment Society.
Similar to incoming freshman, Arredondo will live in a two-bedroom apartment with a roommate near the campus while in the UCLA Pathway program. The curriculum mirrors a liberal arts education but includes classes in developing life skills as well. Arredondo will get the chance to mix with four-year UCLA students enrolled in electives.
To graduate, students must pass required courses, complete a 24-unit work internship and a portfolio. Internships have been fulfilled at Santa Monica Flight School, Grammy Museum, Fox Studios and on the UCLA Campus at the John Wooden Center, said Eric Latham, director of post secondary programs at UCLA Extension.
The $51,000 per year cost includes tuition, room and board, slightly less than traditional four-year students. And like mainstream students, scholarships are available through a variety of financial programs and non-profit foundations.
Arredondo’s mother expects she’ll need to explore financing options but anticipates the experience will be life-changing for her son. She “would give her right arm if she had to” to give him this opportunity for independence, she said.
The incoming class will have 20-25 students, Latham said. While most university extension courses are open enrollment, where adult students hone professional skills or explore new ones, Pathway students must seek admission and go through an interview process. Those selected have a “strong motivation to seek education, work and live independently,” said Latham.
Pathway started as a pilot program 10-years ago, shortly after a Centers for Disease Control report in 2014 described a 119 percent increase in the prevalence of autism in U.S. children between 2000 and 2010. Of its 81 alumni, 80 percent are living independently, 59 percent are employed and 15 percent are continuing their education, Latham said. Five former students now work fulltime at UCLA. Students from India, Egypt, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and Mexico have enrolled in the program, Latham said.
In Laguna, parents of students with developmental disabilities can learn about opportunities for continuing education after high school graduation at a vocational night, May 12, at the district’s offices, said White, who was unfamiliar with the UCLA program.
Arredondo’s mother learned of the Pathway program from friends whose children live at Glennwood House, a residential home in Laguna Beach for 50 young adults with developmental disabilities.
Latham takes pride in the program’s successes. He borrowed a comment by actor Henry Winkler, who has dyslexia. “Just because someone learns differently doesn’t mean we all don’t have greatness in us.”