College as a Path to a Career: Jose’s Story
By Christian Haas, Project 10 STING RAY, University of South Florida St. Petersburg
School was always tough for Jose but not because of the curriculum. He never felt terribly challenged by the assigned material but he could not stand the ridicule that came with being in special education classes. Jose remembers being called “Special Ed” by other students or just “Ed” for short. He would make his way through high school, day by day, wishing he were in a place where he was treated as an equal.
Upon graduation from high school, Jose tried his hand at auto mechanics at a local technical institution. Between the intensity of the labor and the greasy work environment, he decided there had to be something better. He heard about a new program at University of South Florida St. Petersburg that gave students an opportunity for continuing education on a regular college campus. He enrolled in “Project Stingray” and began a college experience that focused on self-determination, employment readiness, communication, and independent living skills. The program matches students with peer mentors, an academic mentor, and a community mentor. It also places students in on- and off-campus internships.
Jose’s first peer mentor, Jon Ellington, was the newly-elected student body president who recognized the quality of Jose’s character and took him under his wing. Jon would always make time for the two of them to eat lunch, meet with other students, talk with administrators, and even hang out on the weekends. Jon knew of Jose’s passion for cooking and often invited Jose to his house to prepare meals together. This relationship was special to Jose as it was the first time he felt like he belonged on a college campus.
During his time on campus, Jose did two internships: one was at an animal shelter and the other was at a local restaurant. Both experiences boosted his confidence and showed him that he had skills and talents.
Jose audited one class each semester. His first class was Environmental Science where he learned about ecosystems and the importance of keeping them in balance. The structure of the class was new to Jose as there was a lot of group work and collaboration. The inclusive nature of the class made this course his favorite. He and his classmates made a field visit to Fort Desoto, where he and his academic mentor took samples of seawater.
It wasn’t until Jose took a course called Career Development did he realize that he could have a career, not just a job. After months of in-class evaluations and company research, Jose narrowed his top two career interests to chef and firefighter. Jose and his academic mentor toured an upscale restaurant, where Jose was allowed to cook up some mussels using his own recipe. He also rode along with a St. Petersburg firefighter to explore the details and responsibilities of fire fighting. He toured the training facility, sprayed the hose, and climbed four stories to the top of a lookout tower. After realizing his life-long struggle with asthma could get in the way, Jose decided to become a chef.
College is not just about classes, it’s also a time when many people create lifelong personal relationships. Jose was never shy and when he saw a young woman reading a book in the student lounge he asked if she wanted some company. The young woman, Erica, was a sophomore majoring in criminology and was appreciated Jose’s confidence. She became his girlfriend and almost 2 years later, they are still going strong.
After his college program ended, Jose landed a full-time job at the Don Cesar Hotel Resort working in the kitchen with full benefits. The decision to work full-time was not as clear and simple as most would think. Jose was under pressure from his mother to continue working part-time so that he would continue to receive Social Security benefits. His family’s struggle with finances made the decision more complicated. After carefully weighing his options, and discussing the issue with people he trusted, Jose made his decision. Jose is now competitively employed. He is the primary source of income for his mother and sister. ‘I just don’t get it. Why should I keep getting Social Security if I am able and willing to work? I’d rather work for my money then get it for free.’ –Jose Cruz
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The development of this website was funded by the University of South Florida St. Petersburg
through a grant from the Office of Postsecondary Education,
United States Department of Education (2013-2014, CFDA 84.407A, P407A100034)