Written by: 
Amanda Fuller
Photography by: 
Leo Gonzalez & Ahna Hubnik

Maria Otero ('07, '19 M.S.) was a high school student volunteering at a summer camp for children with special needs when she first witnessed the life-changing power of applied behavior analysis.

Maria Otero
Maria Otero (’07, ’19 M.S.), a board-certified behavior analyst at Cook Children’s Hospital and second-year doctoral candidate at UNT.

"I'd hang out with some kids one summer, and by the next summer, they'd made a ton of improvement," she says. "They were communicating more, expressing themselves and interacting with their peers. They just seemed so much happier. It was a common thread that a lot of these kids were getting applied behavior analysis therapy."

Born in Colombia, Otero migrated to the U.S. at the age of 5 as a political refugee with her mother and older sister. After studying behavior analysis at UNT -- one of a few universities in the nation to offer the program to undergraduates -- she's now a second-year doctoral candidate at UNT and a member of G-RISE, a National Institutes of Health-funded program that recruits and prepares a diverse pool of doctoral scientists for careers in the biomedical research fields.

She's well on her way, currently serving as a board-certified behavior analyst at Cook Children's Hospital and providing early intensive behavioral interventions to children with autism spectrum disorder.

Through her research in the lab of Manish Vaidya, associate professor of behavior analysis, Otero is working to develop technologies that enable clinicians, teachers and other caregivers to be more efficient and effective in providing data-driven interventions for children with learning difficulties. One example is her prototype for an app that converts a complex behavior analysis assessment that typically requires multiple appointments with a specialist into a simple app anyone can use to determine whether a child has the prerequisite skills needed to learn a complex verbal task.

"I focus on creating technologies that help facilitate learning for children," she says. "Systemically speaking, there just aren't enough people to provide the services they need, and that can set them behind for the rest of their lives. But we can make a difference. Through research and through technology that is user-friendly and accessible, we can bridge those gaps."

A designated Minority-Serving and Hispanic-Serving Institution, UNT is home to students, alumni and faculty who are finding innovative, interdisciplinary ways to break barriers to equity and access in all areas of society -- from health care and education to industry.

In 2022, UNT became a founding member of the Alliance of Hispanic Serving Research Universities, a group of 21 of the nation's Tier One research universities committed to increasing opportunity for students historically underserved by higher education. Members strive to achieve two key goals by 2030: to double their number of Hispanic doctoral students and increase their Hispanic professoriate by 20%.

"Becoming more intentional in the steps we take to serve all of our students will have far-reaching benefits, not just for all of the members of UNT's diverse and caring community," says Pam Padilla, vice president of research and innovation, "but for our society at large as these innovative thinkers create solutions for a more equitable future."

Speaking up
Cesar Jaquez
Cesar Jaquez ('19, '21 M.S.), speech pathologist.

Cesar Jaquez ('19, '21 M.S.) began seeing a speech therapist for his stutter when he was in elementary school.

He was bullied for his stutter early on, but it didn't impact his ability to make friends and socialize until middle school, when negative thoughts began to creep in.

"I felt isolated in my experiences, thinking I was the only person who stuttered," he says. "I didn't get to talk to another person who stuttered until I started group therapy at the UNT Speech and Hearing Center during my sophomore year."

He continued speech therapy until he began his graduate studies in speech-language pathology at UNT, and he attributes his interest in the field to the strong relationships he built with his own skilled and empathetic speech therapists.

"It showed me how much it can impact someone's life, especially being someone who needed a little bit more help," he says. "Now I get to choose when I want to implement my strategies and be fluent on my own terms, rather than have my speech dictate when I should talk and participate in my own life. I'm much closer to truly understanding what it means to be content with myself, knowing that what I want to say is more important than how I say it."

Jaquez is now a speech pathologist himself, working in a skilled nursing facility to provide senior patients with acute and long-term speech therapy.

"We have some full-time residents and some skilled patients who come in for a shorter rehab stay, so their needs can really vary. A person who has just had a stroke might need to learn how to communicate for themselves and properly sequence basic tasks like standing or swallowing. That's where co-treatments come into play -- a physical therapist will work with the physical aspects while I work on the cognitive aspect."

Jaquez always thought he'd work with children with communication disorders, like his own therapists did. But after completing his graduate externship at Medical City Plano, a Level I Trauma Center, he saw how speech-language therapy can transform someone's life at any age.

"Many of our patients are dealing with dementia, Alzheimer's or other language impairments that, even if they can't be cured, can be managed. Our goal is to help them live as independently as possible so they can socialize, advocate for themselves and feel a sense of purpose."

Completing his master's degree during the COVID-19 pandemic was challenging, but he found support in mentors like associate professor Katsura Aoyama, director of graduate studies in speech-language pathology and the UNT Psycholinguistics Lab.

"Dr. Kat is every student's No. 1 supporter," he says. "She's never hesitant to reach out to catch up and provide career support."

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 92% of speech-language pathologists are white and 96% are female. As a Hispanic male, Jaquez is proud to be part of the national push to increase diversity and representation in the field.

"One of the reasons I got into this field is that our patients deserve to see themselves," he says. "Whether it's a child or an adult, with or without a disability -- if you consider my speech a disability, which, for people who stutter, varies from person to person. Patients deserve clinicians who can relate to their life experiences and understand how it impacts their language, their speech, their communication. I realized I can provide that for my patients by just being a little different."

Aoyama has advocated for increased diversity in audiology and speech-language pathology throughout her career.

One of her current initiatives is Project Communicate, an interdisciplinary collaboration led by associate professor of special education Miriam Boesch. Funded by a $1.24 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the five-year program will train special education teachers and speech-language pathologists to better serve students with autism spectrum disorder.

Project Communicate was inspired by the nation's growing need for professionals to work collaboratively across numerous disciplines to improve outcomes for students with disabilities. Its first cohort will begin in Fall 2023 with 12 special education teachers and five master's students from the speech-language pathology program.

Cohort participants will complete interdisciplinary coursework at UNT and conduct supervised field work in Dallas-Fort Worth area schools, where they'll work directly with students with autism while receiving one-on-one training and mentorship from an onsite autism specialist.

The program also funds networking and professional development opportunities such as local and national conferences, monthly seminars hosted by expert practitioners, and workshops with distinguished scholars.

"Research shows that children tend to have better outcomes when they're taught by individuals from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds," Boesch says. "To increase diversity and representation in the field, we have to increase it in our own programs by attracting more diverse and nontraditional students. Initiatives like Project Communicate, which offers generous funding and focuses on career-readiness, are a step in the right direction."

Improving Education
Marin Woodard, Karisma Morton and Brittany Frieson
Marin Woodard ('22) (middle) alongside her two mentors, Karisma Morton (left) and Brittany Frieson (right).

Karisma Morton, assistant professor of mathematics education, also is working to transform the future of education by transforming future educators.

How children learn math -- and more importantly, what they believe about how they learn math -- is deeply influenced by cultural and societal factors. Through her research and teaching, Morton investigates how gender and racial inequities in STEM education arise and works to instill the principles of equity-minded pedagogy in preservice elementary teachers. In her classes, she also cultivates opportunities for her students to reflect on their own experiences as math learners and deepen their understanding of the various challenges and approaches.

"I want to leave them with tools and a new perspective of what math learning can be for all children," Morton says. "My focus is the students in front of me, and the students in front of them."

One of those students was Marin Woodard ('22). Now a fourth-grade teacher at Ginnings Elementary in Denton ISD, Woodard found her calling while working as an after-school coach at the YMCA, a job she took after being laid off from her full-time job in the mortgage industry.

"Although I was a nontraditional first-time student, I never felt 'old,'" she says. "UNT has so many people from so many backgrounds, it was always so inviting."

Woodard was in the first cadre of the College of Education's Practice Activism in Literacy (PALs) Teaching, an innovative teacher training program that is embedded in Denton ISD schools and grounded in a commitment to preparing teachers.

In addition to Morton, Woodard worked closely with assistant professor Brittany Frieson and senior lecturer Jeannette Ginther in the Department of Teacher Education and Administration, and the three would go on to shape not only her journey at UNT, but her entire teaching philosophy.

The kids have realized that mathematics is everywhere, and a mathematician can look like them or anyone else.
Marin Woodard ('22)

"I wouldn't be half the teacher I am if it weren't for them," she says. "Dr. Frieson focuses on equity and literacy and honoring students' real voices, especially when they're expressing themselves. All three of them emphasized the importance of building relationships with students -- seeing them for who they are and what they bring to the classroom beyond the academic aspect."

Since 2021, Woodard has partnered with Morton and Frieson on the Professional Dyads and Culturally Relevant Teaching project. An initiative of the National Council of Teachers of English, it's designed to create a space for early childhood educators of color and educators who teach children of color, emerging bi/multilingual students and children from low-income households. They have presented their research on culturally relevant pedagogy at national conferences in Louisville, Kentucky, and Anaheim, California, with their final conference scheduled for summer 2023.

"Now, as we work together in this research area, Dr. Morton is able to come visit my students, and we talk about what a mathematician looks like," Woodard says. "The kids have realized that mathematics is everywhere, and a mathematician can look like them or anyone else."

Empowering the Individual
Melissa Savage
Melissa Savage, assistant professor of educational psychology

Melissa Savage, assistant professor of educational psychology and faculty associate in UNT's Center for Racial and Ethnic Equity in Health and Society (CREEHS), is researching ways to increase participation in healthy habits, like group exercise, for a group that's often overlooked in inclusion advocacy -- individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Savage and colleagues from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill created a program called Step It Up to research self-management strategies, such as self-monitoring and goal-setting, to support individuals with disabilities in exercise. They plan to use that information to create effective, scalable interventions.

Her project began with a $30,000 pilot research grant from the Organization for Autism Research. It explored the individual factors that can contribute to adults with disabilities participating in physical activity, including learning self-management techniques and receiving social support through individual coaches. The study reinforced Savage's belief that, although it is crucial to build skills and capability at the individual level, meaningful inclusion requires a systemic solution.

"Access is there, but the social barriers make inclusive participation more challenging," she says, adding that the next phase of the project will be a multi-site partnership with UNC researchers.

Another big part of our work is to ensure we actively involve individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in our research and find better methods to help us do that. Learning from their experiences can support increasing healthy habits for all.
Melissa Savage

The teams will build on Savage's pilot program, engaging with caregivers, support professionals, exercise professionals and community leaders to remove barriers to inclusion, shift perspectives and establish inclusive fitness experiences ranging from classes and programs to community events. She will work with CREEHS to recruit participants representative of the racial and socioeconomic diversity of Dallas-Fort Worth communities and already has begun securing community partners such as The Rec of Grapevine.

"Another big part of our work is to ensure we actively involve individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in our research and find better methods to help us do that," Savage says. "Learning from their experiences can support increasing healthy habits for all."

Harnessing Connections
Raquel Daniels
Raquel Daniels ('94, '08 M.J.), vice president and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for Health Care Service Corporation

Raquel Daniels ('94, '08 M.J.) has built her career around breaking barriers. But she's learned that if you want to be an agent of change, you must first make meaningful connections.

Growing up, Daniels wanted to be like Barbara Jordan, the first African American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction and the first Black woman to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"I loved her diction, her voice," she says. "I loved how she advanced society and wanted to be a voice for the underrepresented. I didn't know how that would show up in my own life, but I've always been interested in how to connect people, how to create opportunity in a way that amplifies people as individuals."

In June 2022, Daniels was appointed vice president and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for Health Care Service Corporation (HCSC), the largest customer-owned health insurer in the United States.

She leads initiatives ranging from accountability practices like leadership scorecards to company initiatives including business resource groups that bring employees together around shared identities and interests.

"I am excited to serve in a role that aligns with my values, and to use my gifts to continue HCSC's longstanding commitment to attracting, hiring and retaining people who reflect the makeup of the communities where we live and do business," she says.

Daniels has served in numerous leadership roles throughout her 20-year career in DEI, most recently at Southwest Airlines. She traces much of her career success back to the connections she made at UNT, where she earned her bachelor's degree in sociology and public relations and her master's degree in strategic communications and marketing.

"UNT was a connective tissue for me," she says. "I felt very prepared for my future, from an academic standpoint but also because of the individuals I met and formed relationships with."

The professor who left the greatest impression was Bertina Hildreth Combes, a longtime professor and administrator in the College of Education who was known for her passion for mentoring and her dedication to diversity and inclusion.

"As a young African American woman, working closely with someone who looked like me, who was so well respected and had such love, care and diligence for her work, was very important to me. Dr. Combes was the one who would tell me, 'You got this. You're going to do great.' She saw things in me that I didn't," Daniels says.

The lessons Daniels learned at UNT continue to shape her vision for the future of DEI.

"There is a solid business case for practicing inclusiveness: productivity. Companies in the U.S. and across the world that take an inclusive approach to hiring and leadership are relatively more profitable," she says. "Inclusive leadership is going to be the competency that we're all looking toward; the willingness to ask human-centered questions like, 'How can we harness the things that make us great, like our diversity, to be the most relevant, connected and competitive?' I think inclusion is the activator."

A proud alumna, she sees that spirit of belonging in UNT's caring community and commitment to innovation.

"Every time I visit the UNT campus, I think, 'Wow, how it has evolved!' It's a wonderful thing, because we can't even begin to imagine the great shifts that can happen with the openness to evolve."