When Tricia Alessi graduated from Paso Robles High School in 2008, she watched her younger sister, Gina, go off to college.
It was then that Tricia, who has Down syndrome, asked, “ ‘Why can’t I go to college?’ ” said her mom, Cecile Alessi.
“We looked at each other, and I said, ‘I don’t know why you can’t.’ So we found a way.”
Now 27, Tricia Alessi has been accepted into the Wayfinders program at Fresno State. She leaves for college Saturday.
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On Wednesday, The Tribune went to her going-away party at her Atascadero day program, Escuela Del Rio. When asked what she thought about living away from home for the first time, the young woman was thoughtful for a moment and then answered: “I like to be brave.”
Wayfinders is a two-year program for young adults ages 18 to 28 with intellectual or developmental disabilities. It’s designed to teach them independent living skills such as money management, cooking and vocational skills and also allows time to take the university’s mainstream academic courses. Alessi likes the arts, such as film and choir. She loves movies and has a Hollywood autograph collection that she plans to use to decorate her dorm.
Her mother first learned about Wayfinders on social media. Soon after, they took a campus tour.
“I felt happy and excited,” Tricia Alessi said Wednesday, sporting her navy blue Fresno State Bulldogs shirt. “They had a movie theater there, computers and … my dorm is pretty amazing, and I liked it a lot.”
As soon as she saw the campus, her parents, including father Steve Alessi, said she couldn’t wait to come back and stay.
The application process took about a year and included separate interviews with Tricia Alessi and her parents, as well as letters of recommendation, which her mother says came pouring in. The announcement arrived at the end of April; she was among 17 students accepted.
Alessi’s determination is part of her personality. She went to public schools and was taught to do things independently from a young age.
She’s also high-functioning, with minimal health complications related to her condition, her parents said.
“From the time she could walk, we’ve been teaching her to be independent,” Cecile Alessi said. “But I just didn’t think there would ever be the opportunity for her to do something like this. I think I’ve been ready for it forever, but having a hard time believing it’s actually happening.”
Her parents feel she’s outgrown her hometown. And even though they’ve been grateful for help from local programs for the disabled, they say Wayfinders’ setting and program structure is just what their daughter needs to take the next step.
Tricia Alessi says her mother is her “hero.” But when her mother asked, “Will you miss us?” Alessi immediately shook her head “No,” her brunette hair swishing as she smiled, making her mom laugh.
Then Tricia Alessi gave a playful look and added, “Just a little bit.”