After experiencing a neonatal stroke at birth that resulted in a learning impairment and an inability to comprehend written words, Keisha Casiano ('15) turned to art as a child.
Bullied by fellow students and even teachers, Casiano learned at a young age the importance of loving yourself as you are, and pushing through hardships with the help of creativity and a growth mindset.
"My mom says since I was 2 years old, I'd create things and build things out of trash and random materials," Casiano says. "The easiest way to put it is art saved me."
After receiving her associate degree from Richmond Community College, Casiano came to UNT to pursue a bachelor's degree in engineering when, after her first year, she realized that art was her true passion. She switched her degree to visual art studies and eventually got into the art education program. Now she's using her art to uplift her students -- with one recent project garnering national attention through social media.
"I want to make sure that I never make a kid feel like how I felt," Casiano says. "I share my story with my kids every year and just remind them how my disability became the means of my success. I always tell my kids, 'Your disability is like your superpower. So I'm using my superpower to change the world essentially. How are you going to utilize your superpower?'"
Recently, Casiano's fifth graders worked on a sculpture project that centered around self-identity and reflection, as well as growth mindset, which helped her overcome her own hardships. The students had to make 3D-self-portraits and with the help of the PTA, they added soil, seeds and flowers. They will watch the plants grow this summer as they transition to middle school.
"This year, we focused a lot on self-reflection and self-evaluation, with COVID-19, social distancing and not having a normal year. With the masks, I feel like I still don't know the kids because I can't see their faces. So we focused more on who we really are," Casiano says. "With my kids going off to middle school, it's going to be a whole new environment … it's going to be hard, but you cannot let that overcome you or take over you."
Drawing inspiration from these focuses, as well as the book Exactly You! The Shape of Your Feelings by Sarah Krajewski and illustrator Vanesa Brantly-Newton, the project idea was formed, and Casiano and the students dove right in. Officials at Northwest ISD, after noticing the project, sent a photographer to snap some photos of the students' work for its Facebook page. The photos quickly went viral, resulting in more than 10,000 shares and several new followers on Casiano's Instagram account, @artfunwithms.c. Additionally, the same project is now being emulated by children in several schools and summer camps.
"It's been a really cool experience to go viral and just be able to share something so impactful, meaningful, purposeful and advocating at the same time," Casiano says. "I knew that this project was different and unique, but I was not expecting this at all. It's so exciting."
Her favorite memories from UNT came from late nights in the ceramics building, as well as her art classes.
"There were so many of us who would go to the ceramics building on the weekend and spend so much time there working with clay," Casiano says. "Going to UNT was such a positive experience, and the art building changed my life. I'm still friends with the people I graduated with in 2015."
After graduating from UNT, Casiano went on to pursue a master's in art education at Texas Tech University. Even with her disability, she was able to graduate in 2019 with honors. Casiano admits that she didn't think she'd ever be able to go to college, since she struggled throughout elementary school, middle school and high school.
"Academics did not come very easy for me. I thought that once I got my associate degree, I'd be done with school, and I'd just try to find something else to do," Casiano says. "Finally, I enrolled and UNT accepted me, and once I got into the art education department, that's when I really shined and blossomed. When I graduated from UNT, I went on to get my master's just to prove to myself that I could do it."
When she started at Texas Tech, Casiano worked as a full-time teaching assistant while also pursuing her teacher's certification, which meant that she had to take two exams: the Texas Examinations of Educator Standards Pedagogy and Professional Responsibilities (TExES PPR), as well as the TExES Art EC-12. Due to her disability, she purchased every teaching resource and practice exam possible to assist her, yet she still struggled. While she passed the Art EC-12 the second time, she barely was able to pass the PPR on the fifth and last try. It took her two-and-a-half years and nearly $1,000 to become a certified art teacher in Texas.
"When I passed the TExES EC-12, it was the biggest highlight of my life, honestly. Graduating from UNT and Texas Tech, and passing that exam, are my top three accomplishments," Casiano says.
Now, Casiano uses her hardships to inspire her students at Schluter Elementary in Haslet, where she is starting her second year. Using mostly recycled goods and non-traditional supplies, Casiano teaches her students to think outside the box, as well as share the message that beauty and art can be formed from anything.
"I teach my kids to not be afraid to ask for help, and don't give up on yourself," Casiano says. "You are capable of so much -- it's just how you think about yourself, and who you surround yourself with. Surround yourself with people who bring you up, not bring you down."