By Dan Fost, Cal State East Bay News
Senior Antonio Garcia recently realized just how formative his years at Cal State East Bay have been. It was an average day in Garcia’s ceramics class when a fellow student accidentally dropped one of the pieces he had just finished.
“The end result actually came out better, since the outside of it was glazed and the inside was completely burned black,” Garcia says. “It was quite amazing. I’ve learned how to bounce back from accidents or things not going right.”
The ability to navigate the unexpected is a skill set all students must develop over time, but for Garcia, coping with sudden anxieties — and walking across the graduation stage at Cal State East Bay this June — is all the more significant considering the challenges presented by his Asperger’s syndrome, a subtype of autism. And he credits the university’s College LINK program with helping him succeed.
The program, which serves students on the autism spectrum, started in 2010 with five students and now has 27, according to program coordinator Bryan Fauth. Fauth says Garcia, 24, is a shining example of what students can achieve with the right support in place.
“When Antonio came in as a freshman, he was very shy,” Fauth says, partly due to how overwhelming the transition from Oakland’s Skyline High to Cal State East Bay was for Garcia. “It took a while for Antonio to open up to us,” he recalls.
Math presented another challenge.
“I was able to think of the work in my head, but I lost points because I never showed the work on paper,” he says.
Because of that, Garcia was placed in a remedial math class, which Fauth says often results in students losing confidence and leaving college.
“But Antonio never got discouraged. He kept coming in every day, working on math with his coaches, and really utilized the program to its full extent. Eventually, he was able to get over that hurdle.”
The longer Garcia persisted academically, the more acclimated he became to the university environment. “Socially, the difference between now and then is night and day. Antonio is flourishing from the support the College LINK program has to offer,” Fauth says.
Garcia feels the difference too, saying he’s not only made friends, but he’s also gotten more comfortable speaking out in class and in groups — and developed the ability to roll with the punches in situations that used to throw him off emotionally. In fact, he’s found a professional passion that frequently entails multiple variables and unknown factors: photography. Garcia recently tackled a complex project for which he had an exacting vision — to capture volunteers in silhouette form aboard the USS Hornet, the decommissioned aircraft carrier that’s now a museum in Alameda.
Using software to add sailor hats to the silhouettes, Garcia hopes to create a sense of how the servicemen on the ship appeared in its heyday during WWII.
The photo, he says, will show people that “everywhere has its own place in history, either minor or major. Someone in the past was standing in the exact spot that you are now.”
In addition to the USS Hornet piece, Garcia also works in an art gallery and hopes to become a professional photographer. His images were recently featured at Spectrum Showcase 2: The Electric Boogaloo, a showcase of creative works — music, photography, theater, visual art and more — by students with autism and their collaborators at in the university’s recital hall.
“Cal State East Bay has been a great experience for me,” he says. “The College LINK program was the biggest help in my college life. Without it, I would have given up and gotten a job at McDonald’s.”