Overcoming the Odds
Anthony Tapiz says he’s always been known as “the quiet one,” first as a deaf child and then as a student with autism struggling to fit in at school. So it might come as a surprise that he hopes to make a big noise one day as a filmmaker.
Tapiz is in his second year at Cal State Monterey Bay. He’s working towards a bachelor of arts degree in Cinematic Arts & Technology, the university’s major for students interested in careers in film, television, radio or new media.
“Hopefully I can be a director one day, and an animator as well. I love animation, and I want to learn how it works on computers,” Tapiz said. “Just the idea that you can use a computer to animate anything. It looks amazing! You can build your own fictional universe.”
The fact Tapiz is at CSUMB at all is a remarkable accomplishment for the young man who was told he’d never go to college. Tapiz was a client of San Andreas Regional Center in Watsonville. The non-profit provides case management for area residents with disabilities which impair their daily lives. Only 1 percent of the center’s clients who are students graduate high school and attend a four-year college.
Challenges in School
Nationwide, fewer than 20 percent of college students with autism are able to graduate — or are even on track to graduate — five years after high school, according to a study by the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute.
“They say people with autism can’t make it through college. I’m going to try and defeat that,” Tapiz said.
He has a history of successfully overcoming the odds. Tapiz was deaf and largely non-communicative until age 7 when surgery gave him the ability to hear.
Before the surgery, “I just couldn’t hear very well. I couldn’t even respond to my own name. I did know a few bits of sign language my Mom taught me, but I didn’t talk,” he said.
“Once I began to speak and hear everything, I felt like I was different. People thought I was weird, that I had a robotic voice and couldn’t speak good English,” Tapiz said.
Autism added to his challenges, especially at school.
They say people with autism can’t make it through college. I’m going to try and defeat that.— Anthony Tapiz
“I had a hard time getting along at school. I had trouble understanding people, and they had trouble understanding me. When people are autistic, they tend to be quiet and keep to themselves. It’s like severe social anxiety disorder.”
Despite his difficulties, Tapiz excelled academically in elementary school and scored above his grade level on a standardized test. For sixth grade, his parents decided he should attend the then new charter school Ceiba College Preparatory Academy in Watsonville. Students are admitted by lottery only, and Tapiz was the first student selected in 2010.
Tapiz had a rough start at Ceiba. He believes he was the only autistic student, and he found himself isolated and alone. Thankfully, the principal at the time became aware of his troubles and intervened.
“She gave a presentation about people who need help and mentioned me. She explained that autism is a social disability, that people with autism have a lack of social skills,” Tapiz said. “For the next few years, up until I graduated, everyone started to understand me and talk to me. I managed to become good friends with a couple of people.”
College and Beyond
Tapiz began to seriously consider going to college while at Ceiba. That’s also when a workshop at the new Digital Nest in Watsonville sparked his interest in filmmaking. The non-profit opened in 2014 to provide equal access to technology to young people in the underserved community.
“I became part of this filmmaking group. We made a couple of films, and I even wrote a screenplay for a contest,” Tapiz said. He made short films featuring his classmates and animated films with Lego figurines.
Tapiz visited CSUMB on a high school college tour and was sold on its smaller size, proximity to home, and filmmaking program. His acceptance to the university was cause for celebration.
“At the time, I didn’t know how rare it was for people like me to go straight to college. I was surprised by that, honestly. I’m also actually the first member of my family to go straight to college,” Tapiz said.
Before his freshman year, Tapiz applied to CSUMB’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), which aims to increase access, achievement and retention of low-income, first-generation students. He was accepted and attended EOP’s Summer Bridge, a four-week transition program for first-time freshmen. Students live in dorms, meet faculty and staff, attend university lectures and workshops, and participate in recreational and team-building activities.
“Thanks to EOP, I was able to connect with my roommates at the time, and start trying to get used to college life. It was very helpful,” Tapiz said. “I even learned how to kayak, and I went on one of those rope climbing courses. That was really extreme for me!”
CSUMB has multiple resources to help ensure Tapiz’s success. Through EOP he has benefits including peer mentors, workshops and a retention advisor. Student Disability Resources (SDR) assists disabled students with accommodations and access, and promotes empowerment, wellness and integration into the campus community. Student Awareness for Disability Empowerment, a campus club for students with disabilities and their allies, meets weekly.
For now, Tapiz’s days are full from just going to class, studying and doing homework. While he’s focused on earning his degree and launching his film career, he realizes the broader implications of what he’s accomplishing.
“Hopefully no one sees me as just this very quiet person all the time. I hope they see that this person is working hard, and trying to get through life,” he said. “Hopefully I inspire people to follow a career path and break stereotypes about people with autism.”
CSU Trustees' Award winner aims to help first-generation students
CSUMB senior Bryan Sierra-Rivera was awarded the 2018 California State University (CSU) Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement, the CSU’s highest recognition of student achievement on Sept. 11, 2018, in Long Beach, California. A total of 23 awardees, one from each campus in the CSU, were recognized during the CSU Board of Trustees meeting in Long Beach.
The Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement is the CSU's highest recognition of student achievement and provides donor-funded scholarships to students who demonstrate superior academic performance, personal accomplishments, community service and financial need. Students receiving the awards have all demonstrated inspirational resolve along the path to college success and many are the first in their families to attend college.
“These student scholars embody the leadership, diversity and academic excellence the California State University is known for,” said CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White. “They have traced unique paths to their goal of a higher education and serve as powerful examples to their families, communities and California. The awards will give these high-achieving and deserving students even more opportunities to attain their academic and career goals.”
I am honored to be able to represent CSUMB, the CSU system, and first-generation college undergraduates aiming for a higher education.— Bryan Sierra-Rivera
CSUMB’s awardee is a first-generation American citizen and first-generation college student majoring in biology with a concentration in ecology, evolution and organismal biology, and minoring in chemistry. He was born in Mexico City in a small rural village more than 90 minutes from reliable healthcare. His parents moved the family to the U.S. in pursuit of a better life in the year 2000.
“I am honored to be able to represent CSUMB, the CSU system, and first-generation college undergraduates aiming for a higher education,” said Sierra-Rivera. “The motivation to succeed in my educational pursuits comes from knowing the struggles my parents have gone through to give my sister and me the life we have today.”
At CSUMB Sierra-Rivera is an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Center (UROC) Scholar, Ronald E. McNair Scholar and a Louis Strokes Alliance for Minority Participation Scholar. His research experience at CSUMB involves electrochemistry, and last summer he conducted antibiotic research at the University of Texas at Austin. During summer 2018 he conducted microbial ecology research at the University of Oregon.
“Being recognized by President Ochoa and the CSU Board of Trustee's to receive this scholarship is a one-of-a-kind privilege that I am so grateful for,” said Sierra-Rivera. “This scholarship will help me to fund my endeavors as I apply for graduate schools.”
Sierra-Rivera plans to be the first member of his family to earn a Ph.D. He then hopes to apply his knowledge and experience within academia to help other first-generation college students from under-represented minorities pursue opportunities in education.
More than 340 students have been honored with the Trustees’ Award since the scholarship program was established in 1984 by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation. In 1999, the William Randolph Hearst Foundation partnered with the CSU Board of Trustees to supplement the endowment with contributions from CSU Trustees, CSU Foundation Board of Governors, and private donors.