William Paterson senior Fernando Tavarez Leon found his professional calling on campus, and thanks to the support of the Pioneer community, landed a nine-month paid internship in his chosen field—an internship that gave him a great deal of real-world experience, opening doors to his dream job.
Tavarez Leon was hired in September, through a grant from AmeriCorps, to work for the University’s Transition Program—a program on WP’s campus for area high school students ages 18-21 with learning disabilities. Through its offerings of academic courses, career certification courses, and personal mentorship, the Program provides a bridge between high school and college or a career for young adults who need it.
A full-time undergraduate student with majors in psychology and disability studies plus a minor in sociology, Tavarez Leon spends 38 hours per week working with the Transition Program. He started as a volunteer in January 2022 as part of his disability studies coursework, stayed on as a volunteer well after he met the course’s 30-hour requirement, and loved the experience so much that he asked if he could work with the Transition Program in a paid position—while he was still an undergraduate.
Due to his excellent performance as a volunteer, University leaders agreed and secured grant funding to support the cause, making Tavarez Leon the Transition Program’s first paid intern. His service contract through AmeriCorps goes through June 2023.
Among other responsibilities, Tavarez Leon leads a mentorship program for the students with special needs—teaching them everything from how to manage their emotions to how to create a resume. He also surveys the various on-campus classes the high schoolers take to ensure everything is running smoothly and oversees WP student-volunteers.
“I didn’t have any experience at all with students with special needs and getting this experience has helped me understand what I actually want to do moving forward,” says Tavarez Leon. He is currently seeking a career as an ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapist and wants to pursue a master’s degree in social work within the next year.
“I can say I have nearly two years of experience due to this program,” he adds, noting that he had just started applying for jobs in the disabilities arena and already had two interviews scheduled—one in his coveted role as an ABA therapist.
Though Tavarez Leon credits some of his success on campus to the support of his faculty advisor, psychology professor Michael Gordon, his hard work is certainly at play, too.
Five years ago, Tavarez Leon immigrated with his family from the Dominican Republic to Clifton, New Jersey. Then a high school junior, he did not speak any English and was placed into the ESL (English as a Second Language) program in Clifton High as he transitioned to not only a new language, but also a new way of life.
He was diligent in his high school ESL classes, and 18 months later, Tavarez Leon earned his high school diploma and had passed standardized tests in English proficiency.
“I did not need to take ESL classes at the University,” he says proudly.
He is the first in his family to attend college in the United States.
For college to be a possibility, though, Tavarez Leon worked hard academically to earn scholarships on campus and worked full-time in paid positions off-campus for four years straight. This academic year, Tavarez Leon takes four classes, works 38 hours per week in the Transition Program, and works another 26 hours per week at Walmart.
“My only days completely off are Saturdays, so that’s when I do most of my homework; every moment I have a little time free, I do my homework, too,” he explains.
Through his contract with AmeriCorps, in addition to his stipend for being an intern, Tavarez Leon will receive an educational award that can be applied to his student loans.
His advice for fellow WP students?
“Do not let any opportunity pass,” he says without hesitation, citing his involvement with the Transition Program and earning the Director’s Council Scholarship on campus for the past three years as just two examples of the many opportunities WP has presented to him. “I couldn’t ask for more from William Paterson University,” he adds. “I’m confident that after I graduate, after this internship, I will get a job right away.”
William Paterson University
300 Pompton Road
Wayne, New Jersey 07470