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."

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

Young Natalie Huerta colors in the Central Courtyard.

Natalie grew up visiting Palo Alto College with her family. Enrolling in Project Access not only meant that Natalie could pursue a college education, but she was enrolling at a place that already felt like home.

"There aren't 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 help people become employed and more independent."

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."

Project Access uses the same curriculum as a regular classroom to ensure students learn the same marketable skills as anyone enrolled in the business certification programs. However, the program structure provides additional services for the Project Access students, so they can learn at their own pace while participating in classroom activities.

"As far as the additional support provided, we have a student worker that goes to each of the classes to serve as their note taker. That's one of the more common accommodations that most students with disabilities need," 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 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.

Natalie Huerta enjoys the music at PACfest 2018.

"Even though Natalie may take longer to learn, she's very capable," 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, making friends, and discovering 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; Project Access students are 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," said Morgan. "They're the ones who come to me and say 'I want to keep going.'"