Spotlight Series: Natalie Huerta, Project Access

March 28, 2019

Public Relations

Tanya Huerta takes pride in her choice to attend a community college during the early years of her educational journey. In fact, many members of the Huerta family have attended Palo Alto College (PAC) and other Alamo Colleges in the past.

"Everyone should be comfortable at our community college," said Huerta. "The community is very proud that PAC is there. It's not just the students or the faculty; the community is so glad that everybody can be included there."

Natalie Huerta enjoys the music at PACfest 2018.

Although her family deeply values higher education, Huerta wasn't sure if her daughter, Natalie, would be given the opportunity to attend college due to her intellectual disability. When they learned that Palo Alto College was starting a program called Project Access, which is designed specifically for students with special needs, it was an opportunity they knew Natalie could not pass up.

"There are not many colleges in the country that give people with intellectual disabilities an opportunity to continue learning [after high school], so we were delighted when PAC stepped forward," said Tanya. "They're teaching practical functional skills that will help people become employed and become more independent in our community because this is where we all live, work, and play."

Palo Alto College is dedicated to providing access to higher education for all members of the community. Project Access gives students with disabilities an equal opportunity to achieve the same success as any student on campus.

"Project Access is a special program for students with documented intellectual disabilities to be able to earn a General Office Level 1 certificate," said Cindy Morgan, senior coordinator for Disability Support Services at Palo Alto College. "They're getting the education and also learning marketable skills so that they can get a job if that's the direction they'd like to go in."

From the time she was a small child, Natalie frequently visited Palo Alto College with her family. The fact that Palo Alto College began Project Access meant not only that Natalie could pursue a college education, but she could enroll at a place where she already felt at home.

Young Natalie Huerta colors in the Central Courtyard.

"We've always taken the girls to festivals at PAC... I think community colleges are for all of us," said Tanya. "The entire community is very proud that PAC is there."

Project Access teaches students the same curriculum as any classroom to ensure they learn the same marketable skills as anyone enrolled in the business certification programs. However, the structure of the program provides additional services for the Project Access students to allow them to learn at their own pace, all while being able to participate in classroom discussions, projects, and activities.

"As far as the additional support that we provide, we have a student worker that goes to each of the classes to serve as their note taker because that is one of the more common accommodations that most students with disabilities need – some additional note taking assistance," said Morgan.

Natalie enrolled in the first Project Access cohort and obtained a General Office Level 1 certificate in Fall 2017. Adding to her accomplishments, Natalie has continued taking courses, eventually earning a Data Entry Technician certificate in Spring 2018, and a Bill and Account Collector certificate in Fall 2018. She is currently working toward a Secretarial Assistant Level 1 certificate.

"Even though Natalie may take longer to learn, she's very capable of learning," said Tanya. "She's in an adult environment that still helps her when needed, and is doing very nicely in growing the skills and independence and all the things that young people do while in college."

Natalie agrees and is thankful to be growing in a college environment. She enjoys learning with her friends and is beginning to gain newfound confidence.

"I just love to learn," said Natalie. "I think it's important to be confident because you will be happier if you are."

Natalie isn't the only student thriving in the program; Morgan says Project Access students growing academically, personally, and in their community.

"We have been amazed at their growth when they come into this program, watching their confidence come out, and their love of learning. They're the ones who come to me and say 'I want to keep going,'" said Morgan. "It's really great. It's very rewarding."