A Path to an Independent Life

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UCLA Extension Pathway students pose with the famous UCLA bear at the October 2011 open house. (RYOKO NAKAMURA/Rafu Shimpo)

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By RYOKO NAKAMURA
RAFU JAPANESE STAFF WRITER

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Pathway is a two-year certification program within UCLA Extension that specializes in supporting students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It offers students learning opportunities to help them find jobs and become independent.

Currently, 43 students with conditions from autism to Down syndrome are enjoying college life as members of prestigious school. They are Bruins.

Elena Ashmore, a sophomore in the UCLA Extension Pathway program, prepares dinner at her apartment in Westwood. (RYOKO NAKAMURA/Rafu Shimpo)


One Thursday evening, Elena Ashmore is preparing dinner at her apartment in Westwood. “Tonight’s menu is fried chicken and mashed potato. I have an evening class tonight, so I have to make my dinner a little early today,” she said.

Ashmore, who has Down syndrome, is currently a sophomore at Pathway. “I feel comfortable here. I have made many friends. I learned how to cook, do my own laundry, manage my money, and take care of my hygiene. I enjoy school.” She feels independent.

Eric Latham, the director of Pathway, says, “We want the students to feel good about themselves. We can’t be responsible for everything they do, but we want to create an environment where they achieve what they can achieve.”

Most of the Pathway students moved out of their parents’ houses to live in apartments with roommates for the first time.

A group of special education instructors called Creative Support comes to the students’ homes to teach them social and life skills and assist them with routine errands such as going to the bank, the doctor’s, or the grocery store. There are also live-in assistants called Residential Advisors at the Pathway apartment building, who make sure that the students are safe.

Chelsea Marchetti, a Pathway student, and Tyler Beach, a Pathway graduate, enjoy being part of the UCLA family. (RYOKO NAKAMURA/Rafu Shimpo)


“A lot of people didn’t think I could make it this far because I have a disability,” observes Chelsea Marchetti, another Pathway student and Ashmore’s roommate. “I’m very proud of myself,” she says.

Marchetti, who was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, decided to enroll in Pathway because “I wanted to learn how to live on my own and not be attached to my mom because she is not always going to be here.”

Although she was awarded a $20,000 scholarship, it took two years for her family to save money for Pathway because the fee, including tuition, rent, meals, and books, is about $60,000 a year.

Because of her disability, Marchetti experiences significant difficulties in social interaction. She recalls ,“making a lot of friends was hard for me, but I made many that I didn’t think I could.” She feels comfortable being in school and doesn’t want to leave.

Pathway offers a variety of classes on topics from academic skills and relationships to time management and career development. To receive a certificate of completion, students are required to take the total of eight classes and electives through UCLA Recreation, UCLA Extension, or by auditing UCLA classes. Students must also participate in an internship and produce a portfolio.

Tyler Beach, a 2010 Pathway graduate, now works as a Creative Support instructor, assisting the freshmen by showing them around the campus and helping out. “I really enjoy my job. It helps me become a better person,” she says.

She has been a UCLA fan since she was eight years old, but someone told her that she could not enroll because of her learning disability. “It hurt me, but when I heard one of the students from my high school went to Pathway, I thought I could go there, too.”

While Beach was attending Santa Monica College, she took a class at Pathway to see what it was like. “It was different. I had only three friends at SMC, but Pathway had more social time. I got to know more people on campus like UCLA students athletes, which was pretty cool.”

She thinks that having the ability to make many friends opened her up. “I was really shy, but I learned to stand up for myself and ask questions if I need help.”

She has gained lifelong friends through her college experience and is now looking forward to the future. “My ultimate dream is to take over my dad’s restaurant, San Francisco Saloon.” She is currently in charge of checking emails and updating Facebook page for the business. To make her dream come true, she continues to take classes.

UCLA’s Office for Students with Disabilities provides support and services to students with disabilities, but Latham hopes that students with intellectual disabilities will be able to participate more directly in community colleges or universities without the need for a specialized program like Pathway.

He believes that the K-12 system tends to do a better job, making information more accessible to everyone by utilizing technologies or group work. “That’s we need to see at the university level. This could well be 20 years in the future, but that’s the direction we want to go.”

Stephen and Hiromi Ashmore are proud of their daughter, Elena Ashmore. (RYOKO NAKAMURA/Rafu Shimpo)


Elena Ashmore is in her last year at Pathway. Her internship as an assistant dance instructor for children will start soon.

Her post-graduation plan is to find an apartment in Westwood, live independently with her friends, and get a job. She is now looking forward to her future. “No marriage for me, but I want a boyfriend and want to adopt kids.”

“It took a while for Elena to get used to college life, but throughout the years, she earned the freedom and independence she deserves. She now feels that with effort, she can accomplish anything she sets her mind to,” explains Ashmore’s mom Hiromi. She and her husband, Stephen, are extremely proud of their daughter.

It wasn’t an easy road for the couple to come this far. “When Elena was born in Japan, her eyes looked different, but we thought it was because of a mixed blood,” Hiromi recalled.

When she went to a breast-feeding training class because Elena was having trouble, a midwife asked, “Have you had a test?” Even though the midwife didn’t mention what kind of test it was, Hiromi instantly knew that she meant a test for Down syndrome.

Hiromi, who attended nursing school and whose father was a gynecologist, had some prior knowledge of Down syndrome. But since she gave birth at the age of 30, she did not think it was necessary to have her amniotic fluid analyzed. With the midwife’s question, all of sudden, everything made sense to her.

It took two months to obtain the test results. “We lived for two months not knowing anything. It was a pretty tough time,” recalls Stephen.

Two months later, it was confirmed.

Stephen, born and raised in Australia, was shocked at the lack of information about Down syndrome available in Japan at the time. “The biggest problem was that there was no support mechanism.”

Hiromi was devastated. She was having trouble accepting the reality, which was completely different from what she had dreamed of. She started to consider ending her own life along with her daughter’s by jumping from the fifth floor of the apartment building where they lived.

There was no emotional support from Hiromi’s parents. “Now that I think about it, my parents were concerned more about their public image because they were from the Taisho Era,” Hiromi reflects.

It was hard for Stephen to see his wife suffering. He kindly said, “If it’s too hard for you to raise our daughter with Down syndrome, I would be willing to go home and raise her on my own in Sydney. I would set you free.”

Since their daughter’s diagnosis, the couple received numerous supportive calls from Stephen’s mother and sister with information about an early intervention program for children with Down syndrome. With their support, Hiromi was finally able to believe that she could move forward.

When Elena was seven months old, she and Hiromi flew to Sydney while Stephen stayed in Japan due to his business. With tremendous support from her mother- and sister-in-law, she took Elena to speech therapy, physiotherapy, and occupational therapy.

“Australia was different from Japan. It seemed like the entire society was accepting disabled people.” She didn’t feel ashamed, and her demeanor changed.

“My daughter has Down syndrome.” She never thought she could ever say that in public.

The Ashmores moved to Los Angeles when Stephen was transferred.

Elena’s parents hoped that Pathway would provide a route to a rich and ‘normal’ life for their daughter. The first few months were tough for her, but as she made many friends, she started to enjoy her college life and learned to be responsible.

Stephen explains why he and his wife encouraged Elena to enroll in Pathway: “She needed this opportunity to experience life, love, and work independently. All parents need to give their children opportunities to succeed in life.”

For more information about UCLA Extension Pathway, visit www.uclaextension.edu/pathway

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4 Comments

  1. Stephen Cooper on

    As head swim coach for South Bay Special Olympics I want to say that Elena Ashmore has been on my swimm team for many years. She has alway been one of the best swimmers on our team and has won many swimming medals in freestyle,breaststroke, and backstroke.
    I have always said that her strokes are so perfect and that she could become an assistant swim coah any time that she wanted.

  2. Thank you for sharing this great story! wish every community and university had such a program!

  3. Thank you so much for talking about me l was pretty shy what my swimming coach was trying to say tnxs for the support l presated your comments l feel happer that everyone make commets about me that will be alsome tnxs again

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