(VIDEO) Jennifer Hemmingway has newfound independence after completing the Burkhart Center’s CASE Program.
Deep in the jungle, Jennifer Hemmingway is far from her hometown of Lubbock.
She hikes alongside rivers and waterfalls. Small apes called gibbons frolic overhead. Unfamiliar insects cling to branches.
But best of all is her sole purpose for this visit to Cambodia: the elephants.
“They are much bigger in person,” Hemmingway said. “They love bananas and sugar canes, and they're so cute and loving.”
A natural resource management major with a concentration in wildlife biology from Texas Tech University's Davis College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources, Hemmingway had to submit her application early for this study abroad opportunity because of the popularity of the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia. Throughout June 2022, Hemmingway studied the conservation and ecology of more than 10 Asian elephants.
She had never seen an elephant before the trip, much less had the chance to pet their massive ears and kiss their trunks, or stare awestruck at a calf glued to its mother's side.
Those are just a few moments of her unforgettable experience – one that completely removed her from her comfort zone.
“I'll confess, the hiking really was intense and I was always falling behind the group,” Hemmingway said. “But thankfully, I managed to inform them of my accommodations, and they were really nice and giving of what they could.”
Hemmingway is on the autism spectrum. She had a lot of reservations when it came to flying to a foreign country and living in a jungle with no cell service.
More than that, Hemmingway had the drive to push through her apprehension and not set limitations on her dream to work with elephants one day.
“I wasn't going to ask them to hold my hand,” she said. “I wanted to get through this too, on my own.”
This mindset is fostered by a program Hemmingway specifically transferred to Texas Tech to join in fall 2019.
The CASE Program
The Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research has a mission to increase the quality of life for individuals with autism and their families by conducting research, providing services and preparing educators to serve students from the time they are toddlers, to grown adults. It serves 44 students.
Hemmingway was enrolled at Lubbock Christian University when her mentor told her about the CASE Program offered at the Burkhart Center. CASE stands for Connections for Academic Success and Employment, a program specifically designed to assist students with autism and other developmental disabilities as they navigate college. The goal is to empower these students to reach their postsecondary academic goals so they can find competitive employment after graduation.
“A lot of them are your traditional college students,” said Taylor Fidler, the director of CASE. “They're figuring themselves out. Maybe they're making a couple of mistakes along the way, and that's what college is.
“But I think, having a support system that encourages them and also having peers who are doing the same thing allows these students to navigate these processes in a way where they feel more emboldened and confident.”
Those were some of the exact areas in which Hemmingway felt she needed support, so she decided to apply for the CASE Program.
“I was not really confident in my own skills at the time,” she said. “It sounded really promising.”
After Hemmingway submitted her application, it was reviewed by faculty and staff, and she was selected for a personal interview.
“I'm mostly quiet, and they were very nice,” Hemmingway said. “They just asked about who I was and who I am.”
First impressions, Hemmingway said, are not her strong suit.
“The first question that usually comes to mind whenever I start a conversation is, ‘Do you have a favorite movie?'” she said, with a smile. “So, I'm not really much of a social person.”
Since Hemmingway said she has a tendency to overshare, she tries to avoid that by remaining more quiet and closed. But once she was accepted to the CASE Program and began to navigate it, that began to change.
“They help you out the best way they can and it's a trustful environment,” she said. “I feel like I can be more myself, more open.”
A Shoulder to Lean On
It helped that each CASE student is paired with a learning specialist who assists and guides the student through their academic career through weekly meetings. Learning specialists create personalized plans to identify each student's needs and build skills for independent living, social connections and employment.
For Hemmingway, these weekly meetings helped manage any stress and anxiety she felt as she grew accustomed to the new campus and faces.
“They would see how I'm doing in classes, what I'm struggling with, if I'm struggling with any students or having trouble communicating with a professor,” she said. “They gave me some nice, really helpful advice.”
One of her learning specialists was Erika Valencia, who has worked with the CASE Program for three years. She first remembers Hemmingway as sweet and kind.
“She was a very fun student who went to a lot of the events,” Valencia said, “and she was always really eager to work toward her goals.”
Those goals drastically changed for Jennifer during her college experience. She initially majored in graphic design at LCU because of her love for drawing, but she “didn't get along with computers.”
In the process of searching for a new purpose in her life, Hemmingway discovered the prevalence of elephant poaching. That led her to join the wildlife biology field within the Department of Natural Resources Management.
“I wanted to see if I could get involved in something to help animals,” Hemmingway said.
Shortly after, she tracked down the Cambodia study abroad program with The School for Field Studies. She did this on her own through her passion for the subject matter. However, it helped to have Valencia behind her the rest of the way.
“The students really appreciate having an additional person just to say, ‘Hey, how are things going? Crossing all the T's, dotting all the I's,” Fidler said. “They like to have somebody that can be there to talk with them and work through things to see what's coming up. Also, choices: making the right choices and understanding what those choices are.”
Valencia and Hemmingway talked for months about her trip. There was no doubt Hemmingway was excited from the beginning, but it coupled with feelings of fear and anxiety.
“It took a lot of preparation, and a lot of time to get ready for such a massive trip,” Valencia said. “She was so worried about not being prepared and making sure she had everything on her checklist.”
To help, Valencia made sure they reviewed everything together. She helped Hemmingway prioritize her application along with her classwork load. Then, they made lists, talked about what clothes to pack and what to expect, visited with her study abroad adviser and much more.
In addition, the CASE Program hosts monthly wraps – a meeting with a Wraparound Team that is formed from a combination of people who are invested in the student, such as academic counselors, advisers, professors and mentors. Together, they prepare individualized written reviews, called Wraparound Plans, for each student's progress, goals and challenges with guidance from the students and their Wraparound Teams.
One of Hemmingway's wraps was solely centered around her study abroad needs.
“She just needed some support,” Valencia said. “She was very capable of handling it on her own, but I think in the middle of all that, you kind of get overwhelmed with all these things to do to make this one big trip happen.”
Through the teamwork effort, Hemmingway not only completed her trip, but returned home from Cambodia with hundreds of stories and pictures she loves to share – even in photography exhibits.
Equally rewarding was the moment Valencia pointed out that Hemmingway crossed off all the goals she set for herself during the study abroad wrap.
“It was pretty awesome to get to be like, ‘We've been working on this so long and it's done,'” Valencia said. “There's nothing else to do. You did it.”
Back Home and Beyond
The CASE Program not only helped Hemmingway with her study abroad accomplishment, but it also supported her in other life-changing moments: more difficult ones, such as when her father passed away from cancer in 2020.
“When I fell into depression for a month and a half, it was noticeable to them,” she said. “They helped me through my grieving process, and they were patient with me.”
Then, Valencia motivated Hemmingway to cross the finish line when she developed a serious case of senioritis right before graduation.
“A lot of it was the unknown,” Valencia said. “What's scary about graduating for our students is they've become really comfortable in the college atmosphere, but now there's a big, great world out there. So, we were really helping her and encouraging her to continue to do her best.”
Hemmingway is thankful for that support from CASE. She remembers Fidler made sure to enroll her in a reverse job fair with the Texas Workforce Commission. This program prepared her for the job application process by allowing her to participate in mock interviews.
“I usually don't know when an answer is too much or too little,” Hemmingway said. “Thankfully, one of the interviewers helped me to see I was oversharing.”
By the time Hemmingway graduated in December 2022, her supporters within the Burkhart Center celebrated her with a party, cake and a few happy tears.
“It's so rewarding to see all the skills she's using and putting together,” Valencia said. “It's just genuine joy for her because we got to be a little part of that. I can't take any credit for the work she put in, I just supported her and that's what we're here for. She did it all.”
But even after Hemmingway switched her graduation tassel from right to left, it was far from goodbye to the Burkhart Center.
As her mock interviews turned into real interviews, Hemmingway keeps Fidler updated on responses she receives from companies as she pursues her short-term goal of working with exotic animals in pursuit of her long-term goal of caring for elephants. In the meantime, she volunteers with the South Plains Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.
“Jennifer is one student I can think of that encompasses all of the great qualities of being a great Texas Tech student, but also a model student within our program,” Fidler said. “She has a lot of drive, she knows exactly what she wants to do and she's grown so much.
Hemmingway feels that transformation as well. In the midst of the jungle – a place so unfamiliar and unknown – she not only found her calling among the elephants. She found herself.
She left her shell in Cambodia and returned home with a strong sense of independence. Her newfound confidence has her resetting her limits, to endless.
“I want to explore what else is outside of the flatlands,” she said. “My time in Cambodia helped me see how grateful I am for the opportunities I got, but also how joyful the experience was.
“Throughout my time there, and in CASE, it feels like it helped me to be able to reach out, meet new people and say hi – in my own way.”
Support the Burkhart Center
The Burkhart Center's mission is to serve individuals with autism, as well as their families, to ensure they have the best possible life. This April, during World Autism Month, join the impact by supporting the Burkhart Center.