The first graduates of the master of science in rehabilitation counseling program at The University of Texas-Pan American will go through commencement ceremonies at 11 a.m. Saturday, May 15, in the UTPA Fieldhouse.
Two students, José Guadalupe Gonzalez of San Juan and Claudia Gutierrez of Rio Grande City, have completed all work for the degree. A third student, Yolanda Medina of Edinburg, is a potential August graduate who will march with her classmates in the May 15 ceremonies.
Rehabilitation counselors are employed in vocational rehabilitation agencies, mental health agencies, substance abuse centers, hospitals, private practices, schools and in business and human resource departments. They assist persons with physical, mental and emotional disabilities in adapting to their personal and vocational lives.
"It's very versatile, as far as what we can do with our degree," Gonzalez said. As part of the degree requirements, the three students served a 600-hour internship - the equivalent of a full-time, 40-hour a week job - during their last semester of study.
Gonzalez served his internship at two locations, the South Texas Behavioral Health System Day Treatment Center at the UHS Rehabilitation Pavilion in Edinburg and at the South Texas Behavioral Health System Psychiatric Unit located at Edinburg Regional Medical Center.
"I finish up on Thursday, so I get a whole day off before graduation," he joked.
During his internship, he did assessments, group therapy and some individual therapy with the mental health/mental retardation population.
"Everybody says they want to make a difference, but that's actually the way I saw it, the population that I thought needed the most help through counseling and other assistance," he said.
Gonzalez said he enjoyed doing his internship at different locations with different populations and emphases.
"It's very rewarding to get the complete picture," he said. "It's more real life, I think, than one setting. Realistically, when you work for an agency, you will be traveling a lot, you will be working in different areas. I think it was very well-rounded."
Gutierrez had four internships in series, but she said the last one was the most rewarding - her internship with the Texas Rehabilitation Commission in McAllen evolved into a full-time paid position.
Her previous internships gave her a wide range of experiences from elderly individuals with major depression to adolescents with substance abuse issues. With TRC, she is a vocational rehabilitation counselor.
"I work with people with disabilities in getting them back out to employment," she said. "I do counseling and guidance with individuals with different types of disabilities, from mental retardation and other mental disabilities to physical disabilities, providing job placement. I have a caseload of about 105 cases that I work with.
"Working with individuals with disabilities was of great interest to me, that's why I went into the field," Gutierrez said. "I wanted to assist individuals, helping them to become more independent."
Medina completed her internship with the Texas Rehabilitation Commission in Weslaco where, like Gutierrez, she was a vocational rehabilitation counselor.
"I do case management, I do interviews, I take applications, I do counseling and guidance, diagnostics for the applicant," she said. "My job is to help people with disabilities obtain and maintain competitive employment in the community."
Medina had a slightly different reason than her classmates for pursuing a career in rehabilitation.
"I was a person with a disability (a back injury). I had gone through the system, seeing the doctors, the rehabilitation process," she said. "I told myself that I was going to educate myself and help people... I wanted to learn more."
All three students completed UTPA's bachelor's degree program in rehabilitative services in May 1997 and went straight into the graduate program.
"We went after it aggressively," Gonzalez noted.
They praised the preparation they received from the UTPA master's degree program in completing their internships and, in Gutierrez's case, for her permanent job.
"It (program) has definitely prepared me for what I am doing now, and for the future as well," Gutierrez said. "The professors were very helpful. For being a new program, it has really prepared me for the real world."
"The curriculum (of the program) was exactly what I went out there and did," she said.
Dr. Irmo Marini, associate professor in UTPA's Rehabilitative Services Program and coordinator of the graduate program, had high praise for the first graduates of the program.
"They exemplify the types of graduates that we feel proud of to go out and work with people with disabilities," he said. "They have an ability, like we would like all of our students to have, to treat others with dignity and respect, especially people with disabilities. They are very able counselors with excellent counseling skills."
Marini said the graduate program in rehabilitation counseling is continuing to flourish with enrollment that doubled in the 1998-99 academic year, its second year of operation.
"We have a number of new students coming into the program in the fall with varied backgrounds and good GPAs, solid students," he said. "Things are going along quite well."
The application deadline for the next class, which will enroll beginning in Fall 1999, is July 1.
Marini described the shortage of rehabilitation counselors that continues to exist across the state and nation, one of the reasons for the creation of the program.
"The Texas Rehabilitation Commission has offered our interns a $1,820 a month scholarship just to do their internships with them," he said. "The Texas Rehab Commission continues to talk about the high demand, particularly the high demand for bilingual counselors. They want to send our graduates who are bilingual further north to work at their commission offices.
"It's exciting to see that there are solid entities out there who are dying for our students, especially our Hispanic students who are bilingual to work with the ever-growing Hispanic population in the northern parts of the state and across the country.
"Things are going like we were talking about in our first year - the demand is there, and these agencies are putting up money to get our students out there and doing the work," he said.