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New research shines much-needed light on gay men’s use of Facebook to reveal their sexual identity

Educational Psychology Professor Aaron Rochlen and doctoral student Matthew Chester

The idea of a gay man coming out often evokes in the mind a certain scene: images of a family member or friend seated in an arm chair in a living room, while the gay son, brother, father or husband opens up about his closely guarded sexual identity. However, a new study from researchers at The University of Texas at Austin suggests not only that social media may be disrupting this familiar tableau, it may also be helpful in lessening the negative ramifications for these men.

Educational Psychology Ph.D. student Matthew R. Chester and Professor Aaron Rochlen at the College of Education were part of a team of researchers that investigated the experiences of 12 gay men who came out online using Facebook. Their paper was recently published in the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services. The study fills a gap in the literature about gay men’s coming out experiences.

Coming out as a gay man is rife with risks. In fact, research shows that gay men face higher incidences of sexual prejudice than lesbian women or bisexual men, and increased violence, verbal abuse and crime. They are more likely to be perceived as mentally ill or as child molesters. To mitigate the effect of these outcomes, gay men may use a variety of methods to disclose their sexual identity, such as direct disclosure, clues, and speculation. Their methods of disclosure often depend on social contexts, such as whether or not the audience is a member of their family, work community, or friendship group. However, much of the research about gay men coming out only focuses on verbal direct disclosure.

Said Chester, the study’s lead author, “While taking a break from work one evening, I came across news articles about young men who were using Facebook to come out to their loved ones. The thought of coming out on social media intrigued me, and I began searching for scientific literature on the topic. To my surprise, no empirical articles existed about the phenomenon, so I decided to conduct a study.”

It turns out that coming out on Facebook is actually quite common. In fact, previous research revealed that more than 6 million Americans have come out on Facebook since 2014. Chester’s study sought to formulate a better understanding of gay men’s use of the social media tool for this purpose, to identify goals for coming out online, and investigate differences between disclosure methods.

“Overall, an interesting pattern emerged that gay men used Facebook as a way to avoid repeated, emotionally-taxing discussions about their sexuality,” said Chester. “The men in our study who came out online said it was a wholly positive experience in which they received significant social support that exceeded their expectations. Our research provides valuable information about the shifting landscape in which gay men are coming out to others.”

“This study shows the deep emotional and personal nature social media posts (and others’ reactions) can have on people’s lives.”

“Research in this area, like our use of social media in general, is evolving,” said Rochlen. “Matt has done an amazing job of using some of his own experiences and observations to contribute to a needed and novel research area with real-world implications. Even if on a small scale, this study shows the deep emotional and personal nature social media posts (and others’ reactions) can have on people’s lives.”   

Although the research only looked at gay men’s use of Facebook to come out, Chester said, “There are interesting trends—especially among young people—with regard to use of social media, specifically, engagement with social media well beyond Facebook with platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, and Twitter.  I would like to see future research focus on coming out in a digital age across all these platforms.”


Stephanie Cawthon and Carrie Lou Garberoglio are deaf. They have lived the experience—as students and professionals—of working with accommodations and breaking down barriers. Their passion for changing the paradigm of the educational experience in the U.S. for deaf individuals has influenced their work as researchers.

Stephanie Cawthon and Carrie Lou Garberoglio

Stephanie Cawthon and Carrie Lou Garberoglio

Cawthon is the director of a new center in the College of Education that has received a $20 million, five-year grant from the Office of Special Education Programs of the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). It is one of the largest grants awarded by the DOE to support technical assistance and professional development in education.

The center’s goal is to help change the climate, culture and expectations for deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

“We want to increase accessibility, concentrating on the grass roots, and understand why things are happening at a deeper level”

“We want people who are deaf or hard of hearing to have access to more robust services—services that serve the whole person, and that have been, and that have been proven effective. We want to increase accessibility, concentrating on the grass roots, and understand why things are happening at a deeper level,” says Cawthon, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and an Elizabeth Glenadine Gibb Teaching Fellow in Education.

The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Institute, which will open in January, will be housed in the College’s Meadows Center’s infrastructure and nationally recognized expertise in translating research into practice.

“Dr. Cawthon will lead a strong collaborative national team of researchers and practitioners. The project is well-positioned to draw upon extensive experience, data-driven research, and scholarship in the field,” says College of Education Dean Manuel J. Justiz.

The center will support colleges and universities that work with organizations and public agencies across the nation to more effectively address postsecondary, vocational, technical, continuing, and adult educational needs of deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

“Ultimately, we seek to change the culture surrounding postsecondary outcomes for deaf individuals and create conditions for success in a way that recognizes and honors their experiences, perspectives, and abilities,” says Garberoglio, project Manager at the Meadows Center and a co-principal investigator on the team.

Currently, best practices for supporting educational outcomes after high school for deaf and hard of hearing individuals have not been studied rigorously or shared broadly, which means that uneven outcomes are common. The new center aims to change that.

The center’s researchers want to increase admittance to, persistence in and completion of college or post-secondary training without remedial coursework, as well as institutional capacity to implement evidence-based practices and strategies. The team also wants to increase the body of knowledge on ways to use technology to promote access and provide accommodations.

Says Cawthon, “I’m proud that we’re bringing together teams of people from education, business, and community organizations, as well as families, in an innovative and useful effort. We want to improve the research and find better ways for individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing to overcome challenges and be successful.”

-Photo by Christina S. Murrey

Kimberly Gonzales, M.A.’12, is a rare Latina in tech. The Dallas native and digital content engineer for Texas Instruments earned her bachelor’s degree in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before graduating from the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin with a master’s in learning technologies.

Kimberley Gonzales

“The rumors are true. MIT is very challenging,” she says with a laugh. But in addition to the challenge of content, “it can be hard to also face discrimination.” Working in assigned groups with males can be particularly tough, she explains. “The guys don’t let you code or gain access to the circuit boards. Instead, they want girls to do the presentations.”

But Gonzales didn’t let the challenge and discrimination deter her. “I joined a sorority with six to seven girls who were computer science majors, and we’d do group projects together,” she says. The support was just what she needed to successfully complete her studies.

When Gonzales graduated from MIT, she decided to pursue study in educational technology because she knew she wanted to work within the field of education in some way. “Diversity in any field is valuable. Diversity fuels innovation. In education technology, it should be diverse people working on the tech that will be in the hands of kids these days, because those kids themselves are diverse,” she says.

Kids and science

STEM photo booth at Mi Escuelita preschool in Dallas

Latinas comprise only 2 percent of the STEM industry, “but it’s such a great field and you learn a lot,” she says. “I think a lot of factors affect students’ desire or lack of desire to pursue these fields. Teachers should be aware of what they say to students that might discourage them or to watch for signs of students who self-select out of more challenging work. For example, watch to see if the minority female student offers to take notes when working in a group activity with male students and encourage her to take on a more challenging task.”

She adds, “It’s tough being such a small minority within the field, but in my case, it made me want to go home and do something to help change the numbers.”

After completing her master’s, she returned home to Dallas to take on the role of digital content engineer at Texas Instruments, managing the development of educational content for various platforms. In addition to her job, she’s also the community involvement chair for Texas Instruments’ Hispanic Employee Initiative.

“Being in a workplace where few people look like you can feel lonely and isolating,” she says. “The Hispanic Employee Initiative provides mentorship, networking with other leadership teams, and is a place where you can build community and feel safe to voice your opinions or just feel a little at home.”


Planning team at the Latinas in STEM 101 conference

Gonzales also volunteers on the Latinas in STEM Foundation’s board of directors as the director of marketing and public relations. Her involvement represents coming full circle for Gonzales. “My mother has worked as an executive assistant at Texas Instruments for many years. One day, she met a Latina engineer who’d graduated from MIT and co-founded the Latinas in STEM Foundation.” That meeting led Gonzales’ mom to push her daughter to apply to the college. “I wouldn’t have applied otherwise,” she says.

Her mother’s support of her education goals was crucial, and parental support is a component that is important for other Latinas considering STEM fields. “When I ran the Dallas Latinas in STEM 101 workshop for high school and middle school students and included their parents, I had my mom answer questions. A lot of the parents had never been to college and didn’t speak English. Hearing my mom’s perspective was very helpful to them.”

Gonzales is the eldest of three sisters, all who studied engineering. She and her family are doing their part to increase diversity in a field that needs them.


When Gilma Sanchez was a student, she and her family faced traumatic hardships that went unnoticed by teachers. Now an elementary school principal, she prioritizes understanding and nurturing the whole student.

When Gilma Sanchez was nine, she and her mother, father, and five siblings lived in the state of Tamaulipas, in northeastern Mexico. Her mother was a teacher in Valle Hermoso and her father often worked in Houston-area refineries. Though Gilma and her siblings were born in Brownville, Texas, most of the life they knew was full of the beauty of Tamaulipas. There, family life was the center of everything. Growing up, children played outside most of the time and in school, they celebrated special events with parades, folkloric dances, and poetry.

But when Gilma was 10, her father died. His loss created severe emotional and financial challenges for the family. Gilma’s mother, hoping to give her daughter a better chance for stability and education, made the heart-wrenching decision to send Gilma to Baytown, southeast of Houston, to live with her father’s relatives.

“It was very difficult,” says Sanchez, reflecting on this time from her office at Barrington Elementary, on Austin’s north side, where she has been principal for four years. “I had to learn the English language and live with relatives while visiting my mom only twice a year.” She recalls the positive influence of a teacher in Baytown who became an early mentor, and though she would eventually move back home with her mother and family, “by 12th grade we were essentially homeless. My mother couldn’t afford rent on the apartment on the Texas side of the border, so we lived in Valle Hermoso and went to school in Brownsville.”

Sanchez and her younger sister would wake at 5 AM to begin their journey to school, which included a bus trip that started in one country and ended in another. “We had to walk for miles, sometimes in pouring rain, and clean ourselves up in the bus station before school.”

Sanchez graduated from high school with good grades, but it saddens her that no teacher or administrator noticed the hardships she and her sister went through. “No one even asked,” she says.

That lack of acknowledgement of the personal struggles she and and other students faced would have a profound influence on the direction of Sanchez’s career.

Because she didn’t receive counseling that implied otherwise, the young high school graduate assumed she had to pay for college herself. “So I immediately started working. I became assistant lead cashier at Weiner’s,” she says, laughing. She worked forty hours a week, got married, started a family, and kept pushing forward on her college goals until she graduated from the University of Texas-Pan American and began her career as an elementary school teacher in Weslaco, Texas.

“Through it all, there was never a question as to what I would do. The drive was always in me to finish school and to become a teacher. That was a given,” she explains. “But I thought teaching would be the end goal.”

She quickly found that although she enjoyed it, classroom teaching limited the impact she had on students’ lives.

“I wanted to give what I hadn’t gotten to my students.” She decided to return to school to become a counselor. After two years counseling at Reagan High School in Austin, Sanchez was a counselor at Langford Elementary for three years. “I wanted to help with the early stage of students’ lives. Counseling not only let me help with their emotional issues, but it let me see the administrative side of education.”

It turned out to be great preparation for what would become the next step in her evolution as an educational leader. Both an assistant principal and principal at Langford recommended Sanchez for the UT Principalship Program at the College of Education.

According to Sanchez, “The program built our capacity as leaders.”

The courses were aligned with what you’d really see in the school setting. We tied current research to real events that allowed us to see inside a school—beyond the classroom perspective—before becoming responsible for a school.”

By the time she’d begun her second year, Sanchez was assistant principal of Austin’s Cunningham and Zilker Elementary schools. “Being able to start as an administrator while still in the program meant that I received a lot of valuable support from my cohort and program leaders while I was in my first year as an assistant principal.”

She says that the program helped her look at the overall organization and build capacity on her campus. “As a leader, I look at the data consistently. I have conversations with teachers. I visit the classrooms. I counsel. I focus on the emotional state of students and help the teachers do the same. But I can’t do everything. I have to build the capacity of my team and teachers, as well as the parents and other specialists on campus. It’s a holistic approach.”

That holistic approach is important at every school, and Barrington is no exception. “Seventy-four percent of our students are bilingual. Many of them are homeless or from immigrant families where the socioeconomic status is low.” She gestures to a closet in her office, “I keep clothes here for students who need them.” She also keeps a pair of flats handy, so she can change out of heels to quickly track down a student and keep him or her safe.

Sanchez believes the holistic approach to educational leadership that the program prepared her for has helped her improve the educational experience for her young students. “I can tell that the campus has improved based on parental feedback. The parents feel safe and welcome here and that positively affects student behavior.” She has personally hired most of the teachers now working at Barrington, and she’s had candid conversations with them.

“I explain what we are about,” she says. “Teachers can’t come to Barrington expecting only to teach. The students have emotional needs, and understanding and tending to them have to be the basis of what we do.”

“I explain to my teachers, ‘You cannot make assumptions.’ A lot of the parents don’t read or write. Many of them work well into the night or early in the morning. It’s not unusual for me to see little kids sitting on the curb, waiting for school to open, when I arrive here at 6:30 in the morning. You must build those relationships with the students and the parents. Once you do that, they will trust you. Because of my background, I don’t need a translator and that also helps with the parental partnerships.”

When reflecting on her passion for the community at Barrington, Sanchez says, “My school is not at the top academically yet, but that is our goal. Right now, we are taking care of challenges as we support the whole child. I love what I do, even with the struggles that we face as a campus.”

She pauses and flashes a brilliant smile: “I tell my students that challenges are there to build you and make you stronger.”

And Gilma Sanchez has the story to prove it.

-Photo by Christina S. Murrey

UT College of Education student Alyssa Mayleen Mermea combines new interests with long-standing ones, earns Washington, D.C., internship

Nurturing a long-standing interest in counseling within minority communities, Alyssa Mermea traveled from her home in El Paso to The University of Texas at Austin to study psychology. She was interested in developing a safe place for minorities to talk with someone. “We don’t talk about mental health in our communities,” she explains, “and I believe that conversation—allowing people to safely let everything out—can change lives. I’m passionate about that.”
Alyssa Mermea

Mermea became involved with the university’s League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) chapter, a branch of the nationwide organization that works to advance the economic condition, educational attainment, political influence, health, and civil rights of the Hispanic population in the United States. There, she met then-president of the university’s LULAC chapter, Maria Librado ‘14, who was a youth and community studies major at the College of Education.

“I wasn’t happy as a psychology major, and I talked to Maria about it,” says Mermea. “She showed me the degree requirements for her major and the concentrations were everything I could ask for. I transferred. It’s a smaller school and I connect well with the professors.”

Mermea became director of education at LULAC, which fit well with her interests. “Part of LULAC’s mission is community and advocacy,” she says. LULAC gave her the opportunity to attend the EMERGE Latino conference, a multi-day leadership conference that takes place in Washington D.C. There, she had a chance to witness public policy briefings on public health, education, and immigration, and received training in civic engagement and advocacy. Says Maria, “We attended a panel discussion that seemed like gibberish and I had absolutely no interest. But I fell in love with D.C. and got more involved.”

The experience changed her previous perceptions about politics and public policy.

“I began having conversations about politics and it became a part of my life,” she says.

“Witnessing advocacy on the Hill, I began to wonder how I could be the voice in the room next time. I started to understand the vocabulary, demeanor, and tone to get things done on the Hill, and why it was relevant to be more politically educated.”

Alyssa MermeaMermea decided to apply to become a congressional intern through the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, headquartered in D.C. “The program is about helping people understand how legislators work,” she explains. “It’s a prestigious and competitive application process. I was nervous because I am not a political science or government major, and my resume doesn’t show a keen interest in politics. But I did it anyway. I figured if I didn’t get it, at least I took a risk to educate myself, and if I failed, it wouldn’t diminish anything that I’ve accomplished to date.”

Mermea got the call in June that she was accepted and would be an intern with Congressman Lloyd Doggett from Texas in the fall.

In her internship, she fielded phone calls, took notes, “and went to briefings that interested me,” she says. “I met three presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, and shook President Obama’s hand.” Another highlight was helping LULAC high schoolers who visited from San Marcos and San Antonio. “I saw them take interest in this at a young age and I was able to be in a position that was meaningful and inspirational to them.”Hilary Clinton

Mermea says that the experience has been very valuable to her regarding her community-service goals. “Spending time getting constituents’ information through to their representative has given me an appreciation for what the city and community want and need. I recognize the issues and am learning how Congress works. Learning what our people really want has helped me learn how I can connect with my community.”

One of a cohort of 22 interns that included students with diverse interests, such as political science and law, Mermea says they’ll continue to use each other as a network in the future. And her interests have broadened to include her new knowledge. “Now that I’ve been here and see people who look like me, I’m interested in going to graduate school and working for the Department Education,” she says.

Alyssa MermeaMermea intends to leave Texas for the Midwest or Northeast and cites her love of travel as “part of what drives my passion for diversity and perspective of cultures and people all over the nation and the world. I am exploring how I can take this knowledge and translate what I’ve learned to those who may never have this experience in my community. I want people—especially those back home, my family, my community—to witness and experience that there is no limit to what we can do.”

Louis Harrison and Anthony Brown

Collecting Wisdom

Louis Harrison, professor, and Anthony Brown, associate professor have created and launched a first-ever repository for research into the education of black males. The Black Male Education Research Collection (BMERC) provides a comprehensive compilation of peer-reviewed scholarly articles that focuses on higher education and includes everything from mentoring and psychological health to sports and athletics. The research provides information for other academics, mentors, educators, and policy-makers that addresses root causes and overlooked factors regarding roadblocks to black male academic success.

-Photo by Christina S. Murrey

Photo of Keryn Pasch

Associate Professor Keryn E. Pasch

Kinesiology and Health Education Associate Professor Keryn Pasch knows how influential marketing to young people can be from over 10 years of research. “Behavior isn’t just about individual choices,” she explains. “It’s about a much bigger context. We need to think about the environment, about people within their context.” In 2003 she began looking at the environment in which young people and school-age children live, and how alcohol and food and drink companies were marketing to them in and around those spaces.

Pasch began documenting food and beverage advertisements, like those found on billboards, in convenience stores, restaurants, and fast food chains, within a half mile perimeter of 43 middle and high schools in the central Texas area. Many of these high schools had open campuses, meaning kids can leave campus for lunch. “A half mile is a feasible distance a kid would walk either for lunch or to and from school.”

What she found were about 150 ads per campus, thousands altogether, using words or photos of menu items, enticing people to eat or drink. “It isn’t the healthy choice being advertised,” says Pasch. “So the advertising skews kids’ perception of what is normal and healthy to eat. It normalizes unhealthy choices.”

Coupled with the ubiquitous ads around schools was the proximity of fast food restaurants and conveniences stores, providing easy access to unhealthy options. In addition, says Pasch, “Disparity exists. There are lots more food and beverage establishments and advertisements in low socioeconomic communities and in predominately Hispanic and African American communities.” Graduate student Ana Herrera’s research on these disparities is currently under review.

“We have to start asking why we allow companies to create advertising specifically for children,” says Pasch. “No one would say it was OK for alcohol and tobacco, so why is it OK for unhealthy foods and drinks?”

So far, attempts to limit outdoor advertising of unhealthy food and drinks to children have bumped up against the first amendment, which protects advertisers’ right to free speech. What’s needed, says Pasch, is policy change, but that can’t come about without consistent evidence. Pasch’s latest research, with Dr. Natalie Poulos who worked as a graduate student on the project, provides some of that evidence.

“Paid-for placement exists all over stores and around schools, targeting young people,” she says. Pasch believes there are things concerned parents and others can do to help counter that messaging:

  • Start a conversation with other parents
  • Talk to their kids about food and beverage advertising
  • Go to city council meetings and make your voice heard about food and beverage advertising around schools
  • Ask questions if your school sells chips, candy, and other unhealthy foods, and if healthier options are available
  • Ask questions about brand and product promotion in your school

Want to learn more to help youth live healthier lives? You can view a recent interview with Pasch about her research on the rising popularity of e-cigarettes among young people.

Photo by Christina S. Murrey

Portrait of Brandy Wyndham and Christie Peterson

Brandy Windham, MEd ’14 and Christie Layton Peterson, BS ’05, MEd ’08

Two College of Education Alumni Collaborate to Help Children with Autism Succeed

When 2-year-old Marie* (a pseudonym for the child) came to Building BLOCS, the only word she could say was ‘pop.’ After five years, Marie, who was born with autism, now attends a typical second-grade classroom and doesn’t need extra support. Her remarkable success is due in large part to of the therapies provided at Building BLOCS (behavior and language opportunities for communication and social skills), an early intervention and speech therapy program for children with autism in Austin.

In 2010, when Texas College of Education Special Education alumni Christie Layton Petersen, B.S. ’05, M.Ed. ‘08, and Brandy Windham, M.Ed. ’14, opened Building BLOCS, they had no idea how successful they would become.

Unlikely Entrepreneurs

The two met while working in special education for the Pflugerville Independent School District, which, like many districts in Texas and across the country, was experiencing budget cuts that affected services for students. Though they had no previous thoughts about becoming entrepreneurs, “we could see what was coming,” says Windham, “and it was discouraging. So we would dream about what we would do if we had our own center and could do things for children the way we thought they should be done. For example, in the school system we had up to 12 students on our caseloads. Here, we cap it at five per therapist.”

Three young children play with tubes while their teacher looks on.Today, their interdisciplinary approach helps children with autism learn the communication, behavioral, and social skills necessary to reach their full potential and has helped Building BLOCS grow to 45 clients and 17 employees. Petersen earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in special education at UT, with a focus on autism and developmental disabilities, and became a behavior analyst in 2009. Windham majored in English and earned a master’s in communication sciences and disorders at UT before returning to earn a master’s in autism and developmental disabilities in 2012, which allowed her to work as both a speech pathologist and as a behavior analyst. The combination of their backgrounds helps them provide a unique approach to helping their young clients.

Parents of children with autism often seek both applied behavior analysis (ABA) and speech therapy for their children because behavior issues and language issues commonly coexist in those with the neurodevelopmental disorder. Most times, these therapies are sepa
rate and distinct. But Windham and Petersen combined the two. “They complement each other,” says Windham. She and Petersen collaborate on goals and methods that address challenging behaviors, which often arise because of children’s struggles to communicate. That interdisciplinary approach makes Building BLOCS unique.

“Our aim is for independent living—the ability for the kids to attend daycare and school settings without extra support,” says Petersen. Clients typically spend about three to four years with them and receive 10-20 hours of therapy a week, whereas kids in schools may receive 30 minutes of speech therapy a week, with direct instruction for about 15-30 minutes a day in the classroom.

“We knew we wanted to create a group-based, play-based system, so the kids could be with their peers. What we did was, effectively, a randomized control. We got to control the environment, number of assistants, and so on as compared to other therapy. Ours is naturalistic and that makes it more effective.”

The Value of Early Intervention

young children listen to their teacher.Building BLOCS specializes in early intervention. Children arrive as young as 18 months. “We follow the Early Start Denver Model for young children with autism,” says Petersen.

“We’d read about early intervention,” says Windham, “but the speed of learning in this controlled environment, in this ideal setting, was surprising. These kids made a lot of progress. Typically within the school system we’d create goals for students that we believed were achievable in a year. Here, we can give them goals they can reach within three months because they can do so much in a shorter period of time in this setting.”

Therapy at Building BLOCS isn’t just highly effective—it’s fun. “You have to be really understanding of the kids’ behavior,” says Petersen. “You have to be fun and grab the child’s attention.”

Adds Petersen, “You’re competing with objects that kids with autism are more focused on, so you have to be engaging and flexible because days change on a dime. We do lots of social, creative, fun stuff. One of our favorite things to do is Soul Train dance line moves because they are imitative of others’ movements. The kids are having a really fun childhood. We haven’t robbed them of that.”

Continued Ties with Special Education Department

A young girl colors while her teacher looks on.Windham and Petersen say that Department Chair Mark O’Reilly was helpful in offering support for their endeavor. “We met with him frequently and he encouraged us,” says Windham. And they continue a relationship with the department. “Associate Professor Terry Falcomata has done research with us, and his Ph.D. students come to our facility as well,” she says.

Building BLOCS also offers a practicum placement to special education master’s students specializing in early childhood and autism or developmental or high-incidence disabilities.

“That’s been great for us,” says Windham. “We get smart and skilled people. We give them experience, and they keep us up on the research, which keeps our business in line with the field and best practices. We’ve hired most of our therapists from the programs. They bring us new energy and it re-sparks our desire to learn and enthusiasm for the rest of our employees.”

Making a Difference in the Lives of Children and Their Families

A young girl throws leaves into the air while her teacher looks on.Earlier this year, the mother of ‘Marie,’ who happens to be Building BLOCS’ first client, published a book about her family’s experience, No Map to This Country: One Family’s Journey through Autism. Several children in the family have autism, and the book highlights the therapies used at Building BLOCS. “When ‘Marie’ came in” says Petersen, “she blew bubbles, scattered toys, cried when asked to do something, and didn’t take turns. Now she’s in 2nd grade in a charter school, in a typical classroom, not needing additional support.”

Petersen and Windham smile broadly when recounting Marie’s story. It’s exactly the kind of success they hope for all of the children they serve.

Photos by Christina S. Murrey

Kinesiology and Health Education alumna Ellie Noack ’53, ’59 reminisces on a pioneering career as a physical education leader

“There was never a doubt from junior high school on what I wanted to do with my life,” says Ellie Noack about her long career as a teacher and leader of K-12 physical education. “I enjoyed competition. I enjoyed the activity. And though I didn’t know if I would like teaching. I loved it.” Noack, who completed a bachelor of science in physical education and a master’s of education from the College of Education at the University of Texas, returned to her hometown of Port Arthur for her first teaching job. She later taught in Houston before returning to Austin to teach PE at Baker Jr. High.

“I couldn’t wait to get back to Austin,” she says, laughing, “I promised myself that the next time I left this city, it would be in a box!”

“Austin was a little ahead of the game,” Noack explains. “There was more acceptance of women in the physical education field and in K-12 administration. “I feel so fortunate that I entered my career right when things were on the brink of change, when they began to accept women in administration.” But it was much more than a favorable climate that fostered Noack’s success. The educator, who became the first instructional coordinator for physical education for all of Austin Independent School District and was the first woman to become assistant athletic director, was an extraordinarily hard worker who won over skeptics.

Photo of Professor Emeritus Waneen Spirduso, Ellie Noack and Professor John Bartholomew

Professor Emeritus Waneen Spirduso, Ellie Noack and Professor John Bartholomew

“There were a few die-hards, of course,” she admits, “but in the end, they knew I was going to do the work. I really laughed it off, because when you think about it, no matter who you are, where you are, or what you’re doing, you won’t have 100% approval or acceptance. You just go in and do a good job and people will come around.”

Noack’s days often started at 7:30 in the morning and yawned late into the evenings, when kids and coaches were playing sports on teams. “I’d have felt guilty not supporting the coaches and students out there,” she says. To work that hard, according to Noack, “You have to really like what you’re doing. You have to like kids and expect the best from them. I wanted students to learn something, not just go out there and throw a ball around. I wanted them to learn discipline and fun. The two go hand in hand.”

Noack, who eventually became the first woman to hold the athletic director title in a multi-school district in Texas, credits her parents as well as two UT Kinesiology and Health Education professors with instilling that work ethic within her. “Dr. Shorty Orbison and Dr. Mary Alderson were leaders that I remember so well. They shaped the idea of what you should be doing. Dr. Orbison’s swimming class was so hard. He really worked you till you were exhausted, and as you walked out of his class, he was there at the door to shake your hand. And Dr. Alderson was a taskmaster, and you learned organization from her. To me, they were the epitome of what teachers should be. They were phenomenal.”

She says of her years as an educational leader in physical education, “We accomplished a lot. We were able to add lots of sports and really enhance the women sports. Anybody could have done it, you just had to want to do it and put in the work.”

“I’d really like people to know that whatever it is you want to do, you can do it. Do what you want to and put in the work, and it’ll happen.”

In 2001 Ellie Noack was inducted into the Texas Athletic Directors Association’s Hall of Honor. In 2003, AISD named a sports facility near LBJ High School the Ellie Noack Sports Complex. And this year the Kinesiology and Health Education department of the College of Education inducted her into its Hall of Honor, which recognizes the achievements and contributions of faculty and former students to the department and to the professional fields related to physical activity and health.

Noack, who retired in 1989, says all of the accolades she’s since amassed have been like the “icing on top of a wonderful cake. I couldn’t have been happier with my career. I had a great time.”

“And I’m still a ‘Horn. I’ve held season tickets to Lady’s Longhorn basketball ever since season’s tickets existed. UT is my pride and joy.”

Photos by Christina S. Murrey