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UT College of Education student Alyssa Mayleen Mermea combines new interests with long-standing ones, earns Washington, D.C., internship

Nurturing a long-standing interest in counseling within minority communities, Alyssa Mermea traveled from her home in El Paso to The University of Texas at Austin to study psychology. She was interested in developing a safe place for minorities to talk with someone. “We don’t talk about mental health in our communities,” she explains, “and I believe that conversation—allowing people to safely let everything out—can change lives. I’m passionate about that.”
Alyssa Mermea

Mermea became involved with the university’s League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) chapter, a branch of the nationwide organization that works to advance the economic condition, educational attainment, political influence, health, and civil rights of the Hispanic population in the United States. There, she met then-president of the university’s LULAC chapter, Maria Librado ‘14, who was a youth and community studies major at the College of Education.

“I wasn’t happy as a psychology major, and I talked to Maria about it,” says Mermea. “She showed me the degree requirements for her major and the concentrations were everything I could ask for. I transferred. It’s a smaller school and I connect well with the professors.”

Mermea became director of education at LULAC, which fit well with her interests. “Part of LULAC’s mission is community and advocacy,” she says. LULAC gave her the opportunity to attend the EMERGE Latino conference, a multi-day leadership conference that takes place in Washington D.C. There, she had a chance to witness public policy briefings on public health, education, and immigration, and received training in civic engagement and advocacy. Says Maria, “We attended a panel discussion that seemed like gibberish and I had absolutely no interest. But I fell in love with D.C. and got more involved.”

The experience changed her previous perceptions about politics and public policy.

“I began having conversations about politics and it became a part of my life,” she says.

“Witnessing advocacy on the Hill, I began to wonder how I could be the voice in the room next time. I started to understand the vocabulary, demeanor, and tone to get things done on the Hill, and why it was relevant to be more politically educated.”

Alyssa MermeaMermea decided to apply to become a congressional intern through the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, headquartered in D.C. “The program is about helping people understand how legislators work,” she explains. “It’s a prestigious and competitive application process. I was nervous because I am not a political science or government major, and my resume doesn’t show a keen interest in politics. But I did it anyway. I figured if I didn’t get it, at least I took a risk to educate myself, and if I failed, it wouldn’t diminish anything that I’ve accomplished to date.”

Mermea got the call in June that she was accepted and would be an intern with Congressman Lloyd Doggett from Texas in the fall.

In her internship, she fielded phone calls, took notes, “and went to briefings that interested me,” she says. “I met three presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, and shook President Obama’s hand.” Another highlight was helping LULAC high schoolers who visited from San Marcos and San Antonio. “I saw them take interest in this at a young age and I was able to be in a position that was meaningful and inspirational to them.”Hilary Clinton

Mermea says that the experience has been very valuable to her regarding her community-service goals. “Spending time getting constituents’ information through to their representative has given me an appreciation for what the city and community want and need. I recognize the issues and am learning how Congress works. Learning what our people really want has helped me learn how I can connect with my community.”

One of a cohort of 22 interns that included students with diverse interests, such as political science and law, Mermea says they’ll continue to use each other as a network in the future. And her interests have broadened to include her new knowledge. “Now that I’ve been here and see people who look like me, I’m interested in going to graduate school and working for the Department Education,” she says.

Alyssa MermeaMermea intends to leave Texas for the Midwest or Northeast and cites her love of travel as “part of what drives my passion for diversity and perspective of cultures and people all over the nation and the world. I am exploring how I can take this knowledge and translate what I’ve learned to those who may never have this experience in my community. I want people—especially those back home, my family, my community—to witness and experience that there is no limit to what we can do.”

Louis Harrison and Anthony Brown

Collecting Wisdom

Louis Harrison, professor, and Anthony Brown, associate professor have created and launched a first-ever repository for research into the education of black males. The Black Male Education Research Collection (BMERC) provides a comprehensive compilation of peer-reviewed scholarly articles that focuses on higher education and includes everything from mentoring and psychological health to sports and athletics. The research provides information for other academics, mentors, educators, and policy-makers that addresses root causes and overlooked factors regarding roadblocks to black male academic success.

-Photo by Christina S. Murrey

Photo of Keryn Pasch

Associate Professor Keryn E. Pasch

Kinesiology and Health Education Associate Professor Keryn Pasch knows how influential marketing to young people can be from over 10 years of research. “Behavior isn’t just about individual choices,” she explains. “It’s about a much bigger context. We need to think about the environment, about people within their context.” In 2003 she began looking at the environment in which young people and school-age children live, and how alcohol and food and drink companies were marketing to them in and around those spaces.

Pasch began documenting food and beverage advertisements, like those found on billboards, in convenience stores, restaurants, and fast food chains, within a half mile perimeter of 43 middle and high schools in the central Texas area. Many of these high schools had open campuses, meaning kids can leave campus for lunch. “A half mile is a feasible distance a kid would walk either for lunch or to and from school.”

What she found were about 150 ads per campus, thousands altogether, using words or photos of menu items, enticing people to eat or drink. “It isn’t the healthy choice being advertised,” says Pasch. “So the advertising skews kids’ perception of what is normal and healthy to eat. It normalizes unhealthy choices.”

Coupled with the ubiquitous ads around schools was the proximity of fast food restaurants and conveniences stores, providing easy access to unhealthy options. In addition, says Pasch, “Disparity exists. There are lots more food and beverage establishments and advertisements in low socioeconomic communities and in predominately Hispanic and African American communities.” Graduate student Ana Herrera’s research on these disparities is currently under review.

“We have to start asking why we allow companies to create advertising specifically for children,” says Pasch. “No one would say it was OK for alcohol and tobacco, so why is it OK for unhealthy foods and drinks?”

So far, attempts to limit outdoor advertising of unhealthy food and drinks to children have bumped up against the first amendment, which protects advertisers’ right to free speech. What’s needed, says Pasch, is policy change, but that can’t come about without consistent evidence. Pasch’s latest research, with Dr. Natalie Poulos who worked as a graduate student on the project, provides some of that evidence.

“Paid-for placement exists all over stores and around schools, targeting young people,” she says. Pasch believes there are things concerned parents and others can do to help counter that messaging:

  • Start a conversation with other parents
  • Talk to their kids about food and beverage advertising
  • Go to city council meetings and make your voice heard about food and beverage advertising around schools
  • Ask questions if your school sells chips, candy, and other unhealthy foods, and if healthier options are available
  • Ask questions about brand and product promotion in your school

Want to learn more to help youth live healthier lives? You can view a recent interview with Pasch about her research on the rising popularity of e-cigarettes among young people.

Photo by Christina S. Murrey

Portrait of Brandy Wyndham and Christie Peterson

Brandy Windham, MEd ’14 and Christie Layton Peterson, BS ’05, MEd ’08

Two College of Education Alumni Collaborate to Help Children with Autism Succeed

When 2-year-old Marie* (a pseudonym for the child) came to Building BLOCS, the only word she could say was ‘pop.’ After five years, Marie, who was born with autism, now attends a typical second-grade classroom and doesn’t need extra support. Her remarkable success is due in large part to of the therapies provided at Building BLOCS (behavior and language opportunities for communication and social skills), an early intervention and speech therapy program for children with autism in Austin.

In 2010, when Texas College of Education Special Education alumni Christie Layton Petersen, B.S. ’05, M.Ed. ‘08, and Brandy Windham, M.Ed. ’14, opened Building BLOCS, they had no idea how successful they would become.

Unlikely Entrepreneurs

The two met while working in special education for the Pflugerville Independent School District, which, like many districts in Texas and across the country, was experiencing budget cuts that affected services for students. Though they had no previous thoughts about becoming entrepreneurs, “we could see what was coming,” says Windham, “and it was discouraging. So we would dream about what we would do if we had our own center and could do things for children the way we thought they should be done. For example, in the school system we had up to 12 students on our caseloads. Here, we cap it at five per therapist.”

Three young children play with tubes while their teacher looks on.Today, their interdisciplinary approach helps children with autism learn the communication, behavioral, and social skills necessary to reach their full potential and has helped Building BLOCS grow to 45 clients and 17 employees. Petersen earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in special education at UT, with a focus on autism and developmental disabilities, and became a behavior analyst in 2009. Windham majored in English and earned a master’s in communication sciences and disorders at UT before returning to earn a master’s in autism and developmental disabilities in 2012, which allowed her to work as both a speech pathologist and as a behavior analyst. The combination of their backgrounds helps them provide a unique approach to helping their young clients.

Parents of children with autism often seek both applied behavior analysis (ABA) and speech therapy for their children because behavior issues and language issues commonly coexist in those with the neurodevelopmental disorder. Most times, these therapies are sepa
rate and distinct. But Windham and Petersen combined the two. “They complement each other,” says Windham. She and Petersen collaborate on goals and methods that address challenging behaviors, which often arise because of children’s struggles to communicate. That interdisciplinary approach makes Building BLOCS unique.

“Our aim is for independent living—the ability for the kids to attend daycare and school settings without extra support,” says Petersen. Clients typically spend about three to four years with them and receive 10-20 hours of therapy a week, whereas kids in schools may receive 30 minutes of speech therapy a week, with direct instruction for about 15-30 minutes a day in the classroom.

“We knew we wanted to create a group-based, play-based system, so the kids could be with their peers. What we did was, effectively, a randomized control. We got to control the environment, number of assistants, and so on as compared to other therapy. Ours is naturalistic and that makes it more effective.”

The Value of Early Intervention

young children listen to their teacher.Building BLOCS specializes in early intervention. Children arrive as young as 18 months. “We follow the Early Start Denver Model for young children with autism,” says Petersen.

“We’d read about early intervention,” says Windham, “but the speed of learning in this controlled environment, in this ideal setting, was surprising. These kids made a lot of progress. Typically within the school system we’d create goals for students that we believed were achievable in a year. Here, we can give them goals they can reach within three months because they can do so much in a shorter period of time in this setting.”

Therapy at Building BLOCS isn’t just highly effective—it’s fun. “You have to be really understanding of the kids’ behavior,” says Petersen. “You have to be fun and grab the child’s attention.”

Adds Petersen, “You’re competing with objects that kids with autism are more focused on, so you have to be engaging and flexible because days change on a dime. We do lots of social, creative, fun stuff. One of our favorite things to do is Soul Train dance line moves because they are imitative of others’ movements. The kids are having a really fun childhood. We haven’t robbed them of that.”

Continued Ties with Special Education Department

A young girl colors while her teacher looks on.Windham and Petersen say that Department Chair Mark O’Reilly was helpful in offering support for their endeavor. “We met with him frequently and he encouraged us,” says Windham. And they continue a relationship with the department. “Associate Professor Terry Falcomata has done research with us, and his Ph.D. students come to our facility as well,” she says.

Building BLOCS also offers a practicum placement to special education master’s students specializing in early childhood and autism or developmental or high-incidence disabilities.

“That’s been great for us,” says Windham. “We get smart and skilled people. We give them experience, and they keep us up on the research, which keeps our business in line with the field and best practices. We’ve hired most of our therapists from the programs. They bring us new energy and it re-sparks our desire to learn and enthusiasm for the rest of our employees.”

Making a Difference in the Lives of Children and Their Families

A young girl throws leaves into the air while her teacher looks on.Earlier this year, the mother of ‘Marie,’ who happens to be Building BLOCS’ first client, published a book about her family’s experience, No Map to This Country: One Family’s Journey through Autism. Several children in the family have autism, and the book highlights the therapies used at Building BLOCS. “When ‘Marie’ came in” says Petersen, “she blew bubbles, scattered toys, cried when asked to do something, and didn’t take turns. Now she’s in 2nd grade in a charter school, in a typical classroom, not needing additional support.”

Petersen and Windham smile broadly when recounting Marie’s story. It’s exactly the kind of success they hope for all of the children they serve.

Photos by Christina S. Murrey

Kinesiology and Health Education alumna Ellie Noack ’53, ’59 reminisces on a pioneering career as a physical education leader

“There was never a doubt from junior high school on what I wanted to do with my life,” says Ellie Noack about her long career as a teacher and leader of K-12 physical education. “I enjoyed competition. I enjoyed the activity. And though I didn’t know if I would like teaching. I loved it.” Noack, who completed a bachelor of science in physical education and a master’s of education from the College of Education at the University of Texas, returned to her hometown of Port Arthur for her first teaching job. She later taught in Houston before returning to Austin to teach PE at Baker Jr. High.

“I couldn’t wait to get back to Austin,” she says, laughing, “I promised myself that the next time I left this city, it would be in a box!”

“Austin was a little ahead of the game,” Noack explains. “There was more acceptance of women in the physical education field and in K-12 administration. “I feel so fortunate that I entered my career right when things were on the brink of change, when they began to accept women in administration.” But it was much more than a favorable climate that fostered Noack’s success. The educator, who became the first instructional coordinator for physical education for all of Austin Independent School District and was the first woman to become assistant athletic director, was an extraordinarily hard worker who won over skeptics.

Photo of Professor Emeritus Waneen Spirduso, Ellie Noack and Professor John Bartholomew

Professor Emeritus Waneen Spirduso, Ellie Noack and Professor John Bartholomew

“There were a few die-hards, of course,” she admits, “but in the end, they knew I was going to do the work. I really laughed it off, because when you think about it, no matter who you are, where you are, or what you’re doing, you won’t have 100% approval or acceptance. You just go in and do a good job and people will come around.”

Noack’s days often started at 7:30 in the morning and yawned late into the evenings, when kids and coaches were playing sports on teams. “I’d have felt guilty not supporting the coaches and students out there,” she says. To work that hard, according to Noack, “You have to really like what you’re doing. You have to like kids and expect the best from them. I wanted students to learn something, not just go out there and throw a ball around. I wanted them to learn discipline and fun. The two go hand in hand.”

Noack, who eventually became the first woman to hold the athletic director title in a multi-school district in Texas, credits her parents as well as two UT Kinesiology and Health Education professors with instilling that work ethic within her. “Dr. Shorty Orbison and Dr. Mary Alderson were leaders that I remember so well. They shaped the idea of what you should be doing. Dr. Orbison’s swimming class was so hard. He really worked you till you were exhausted, and as you walked out of his class, he was there at the door to shake your hand. And Dr. Alderson was a taskmaster, and you learned organization from her. To me, they were the epitome of what teachers should be. They were phenomenal.”

She says of her years as an educational leader in physical education, “We accomplished a lot. We were able to add lots of sports and really enhance the women sports. Anybody could have done it, you just had to want to do it and put in the work.”

“I’d really like people to know that whatever it is you want to do, you can do it. Do what you want to and put in the work, and it’ll happen.”

In 2001 Ellie Noack was inducted into the Texas Athletic Directors Association’s Hall of Honor. In 2003, AISD named a sports facility near LBJ High School the Ellie Noack Sports Complex. And this year the Kinesiology and Health Education department of the College of Education inducted her into its Hall of Honor, which recognizes the achievements and contributions of faculty and former students to the department and to the professional fields related to physical activity and health.

Noack, who retired in 1989, says all of the accolades she’s since amassed have been like the “icing on top of a wonderful cake. I couldn’t have been happier with my career. I had a great time.”

“And I’m still a ‘Horn. I’ve held season tickets to Lady’s Longhorn basketball ever since season’s tickets existed. UT is my pride and joy.”

Photos by Christina S. Murrey

Photo of Delida Sanchez

Assistant Professor Delida Sanchez

Educational Psychology Assistant Professor Delida Sanchez’s research focuses on how racism, particularly perceived discrimination, affects social, emotional, and behavioral health among Black and Latinx populations. Her work shows how cultural strengths can be used to promote resilience. Here, she answers questions about health disparities for underrepresented K-12 students and what educators can do to help.

What kinds of health disparities do you see in the K-12 system?

Underrepresented populations, particularly Black and Latinx youth, face higher rates of psychological distress, such as depression and anxiety, and engage in higher rates of substance use and sexual risk behaviors compared to White youth. Research also shows that youth of color show significantly higher rates of childhood obesity, diabetes, and asthma. These health disparities are, in large part, correlated with poverty, racism, and discrimination. Exposure to these risk factors begin at an early age via poor access to and lack of quality health care, inequities in educational opportunities, poor housing conditions, and an overrepresentation of Blacks and Latinxs in the juvenile justice system. Overall, mental and behavioral health disparities have cascading effects across the life course.

How can those disparities be recognized and assessed by educators or members of the students’ community?

Teachers and counselors are often aware of students’ distress and engagement in risky behaviors. However, they may feel ill-equipped to respond and are not aware of how those symptoms are linked with larger structural and institutional inequities. Recognizing how health disparities are propagated and reinforced is essential for dismantling negative mental and behavioral health outcomes among underrepresented youth.

Educators and other members of the students’ community can also learn about the ways in which lack of access to quality healthcare and educational resources may be contributing to mental and behavioral health problems. For example, U. S. national data indicate that in states that endorse abstinence-only sexual health policies, youth have significantly higher rates of unintended pregnancy and STIs compared to those states with more comprehensive sexual health education. Considering how certain laws may be inhibiting efforts to reduce negative sexual health outcomes is important.

Next, educators need to be aware of how educational policies may be contributing to unfair targeting of underrepresented children, such as harsher punishment for age-appropriate misbehaviors. These can include suspensions for talking back to teachers, not following a dress code, or tardiness—all of which are part of normal child development. In fact, until September 2015, Texas had a long-standing law that sent students as young as 12 and their parents to criminal court, and sometimes jail, for being late or missing school. A child could be considered tardy for being just two minutes late, despite attending school daily. Unfair criminalization of normal behaviors exposes youth of color to the criminal justice system at a very early age.

Teachers and the community can collaborate to raise consciousness about young people’s health needs. Together, they can strategize how to support youth who may be experiencing mental and behavioral symptoms. That collaboration is central to mobilizing change.

What helps underrepresented children overcome these disparities?

Findings from my research have shown that there are differences in racial and ethnic identity development and discrimination among diverse Black and Latinx populations. This suggests that it is important to understand the racial/ethnic histories among Black and Latinx subgroups and how differences in those histories are linked to mental and behavioral health outcomes.

We’ve also uncovered a direct link between perceived discrimination and substance use and sexual risk behaviors. There’s even an indirect link via psychological distress, peer influence and certain Latina/o gender role attitudes. However, certain culture-specific values (such as an emphasis on collectivism within one’s community, familism, and spirituality that have been found to prevent negative behavioral health outcomes.

Qualitative findings suggest distinct cultural and relational contexts of identity development in African American and Mexican American girls. Attitudes and behaviors toward dating and sex seem to differentially affect sexual health. For example, among African American girls, themes of colorism and negative sexual stereotypes were factors in ethnic identity development, and egalitarian gender roles were associated with positive attitudes toward dating and sex. Among Mexican American girls, themes of language and acculturation were salient factors in ethnic identity development, and traditional patriarchal gender expectations were associated with negative attitudes toward dating and sex. Although there were no ethnic group differences in sexual behaviors between African American and Mexican American girls, findings suggest that sexual prevention and interventions should be culturally tailored.

What are you currently researching?

My most recent studies extend the examination of perceived discrimination and mental and behavioral health disparities to include preadolescent Latino males—a severely understudied ethnic and developmental demographic. I’m excited about what we’ll find based on this new research. It will be crucial for educators and communities to enhance cultural responsiveness to this underrepresented population.

Photo by Christina S. Murrey

Photo of Keffrelyn Brown

Associate Professor Keffrelyn Brown

A new book by Curriculum and Instruction faculty member Keffrelyn Brown tackles the “at-risk” label: After the At-Risk Label: Reorienting Educational Policy and Practice (Disability, Culture, and Equity Series). The book was published by Teachers College Press this summer.

Brown hopes that the book will challenge how educators and policymakers think about the label, so that it can be used more equitably.

Says Brown, “Risk matters. It’s an important construct that both pre-service and in-service teachers as well as policy[makers] invoke to presumably meet students’ needs. If you can figure out what the risk is and who has the risk or who faces the risk, you can better provide services for them.”

Although Brown believes that the idea of risk and that some people are “at risk” is deeply ingrained in Western culture, she questions the notion of using the at-risk label at all. “What I argue is that the term itself is laden with problems. The term is just one of many that has been deployed since the beginning of the 20th century to describe children who fundamentally are positioned as against the norm.”


Visit the College of Education homepage to read more.

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Associate Professor Stephanie Cawthon and Co-Principal Investigator Carrie Lou Garberoglio in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin have received a $20 million, five-year award from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs to lead a center that will have a far-reaching effect: supporting postsecondary education outcomes for deaf and hard of hearing people.

It is one of the largest grants awarded by the Department of Education to support technical assistance and professional development in special education.

Stephanie Cawthon, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, an Elizabeth Glenadine Gibb Teaching Fellow in Education and director of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Institute at the Meadows Center, will lead the program. Carrie Lou Garberoglio, project manager at the Meadows Center, is co-principal investigator on the team.

“We want deaf and hard of hearing people to have access to more robust services — services that assist the whole person and that have been proven effective,” Cawthon said “We want to increase accessibility, concentrating on the grassroots level, and understand why things are happening at a deeper level.”

Currently, best practices for educating and supporting the educational outcomes of deaf and hard of hearing individuals after high school have not been studied rigorously or shared broadly, which means that uneven outcomes are common. The new center, which launches Jan. 1, aims to change that.

The program will be located in the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk, which is nationally recognized for its expertise in translating research into practice.

For more about the new center, visit the UT News homepage.

Photo by Christina S. Murrey

African American males face many obstacles in education: disproportionate dropout, expulsion and suspension rates, overrepresentation in special education, and underrepresentation in gifted education. Yet research on the issues black males face in the realm of education has been difficult to find. To help researchers, journalists and policymakers locate available research on the education of black males, University of Texas College of Education Professors Louis Harrison and Anthony Brown launched The Black Male Education Research Collection, a new website.

The accessible, web-based repository provides a comprehensive collection of scholarly articles from peer-reviewed journals that focus on higher education and includes everything from mentoring and psychological health to sports and athletics. The research provides information for other academics, mentors, educators and policymakers that addresses root causes and overlooked factors regarding roadblocks to black male academic success.

In addition to the research, the collection also features interviews, reports and monthly videos from the nation’s top scholars on black male education. The professors intend to add additional peer-reviewed research to the site as well as relevant books, book reviews, magazines and dissertations.

For more information about the Black Male Education Research Collection, visit the website.

To read the full story, visit The University of Texas at Austin News page.

Photo by Christina S. Murrey