Student Spotlight: Juan Nieto is Up for a Challenge

July 6, 2023 | San Diego Community College District

Happy Disability Pride month! Welcome to our Student Spotlight series, where we share stories from SDCCD students who utilize Disability Support Programs & Services (DSPS) to help reach their academic and employment goals. In this edition, we showcase Juan Nieto, a dedicated Mesa College student who is exploring various degree options.

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Systemic Shortcomings

Juan Nieto's elementary school experience was marred by systemic shortcomings that unfortunately impact many students with disabilities.

“I guess my school didn’t understand my disability, so I was placed in [moderate/severe] classes,” he said. “I played with Legos from first through sixth grade.”

Nieto has Nystagmus, a vision condition in which the eyes make repetitive, uncontrolled movements.

“My eye doctor told me that my eye is like a camera, but without the zoom.” he said.

Nieto was eventually placed in more appropriate middle-school classes, where he worked hard to catch up with his classmates. By high school graduation, he felt comfortable in language arts and hoped to further develop his math and science skills in college.

Adjusting the Approach

Before enrolling in college, Nieto spent a gap year in San Pablo, CA at Hatlen Center, an immersive residential program for adults with visual impairments. After gaining life skills in areas like grocery shopping and cooking, he returned to San Diego and decided to pursue higher education at Mesa. 

“I signed up for college the wrong way,” said Nieto. “I signed up for a math class that I was not qualified for. I didn’t talk to a counselor, and I ended up failing.”

Recognizing that independence does not translate to facing challenges alone, Nieto adjusted his approach and sought assistance, meeting with a counselor at Southwestern College who guided him through a placement exam and provided the necessary support to embark on his college journey. After several years at Southwestern, Nieto returned to Mesa in late 2022.

A Courageous Mindset

Nieto perceives his second go-round with Mesa as a growth opportunity. While he is on track to pursue a kinesiology degree and transfer into the CSU system, he is also intrigued at the prospect of majoring in a STEM field if he improves his math up to Calculus 3.

“I’m scared, but I just want to give it a try," said Nieto. “If it doesn't work out, I'm fine with that.” 

He attributes this courageous mindset to Mesa College instructors Danica Moore (Chemistry 100) and Dr. Candace Katungi (Black Studies), whose personal narratives of academic perseverance motivate Nieto to approach obstacles with curiosity and patience.

“I thought all professors had a perfect start,” he said. “But it just goes to show that, it doesn't necessarily matter where you start, but what you do.”

Accessibility and Advice

When asked how his disability influences his academic experience, Nieto disclosed that his primary challenge lies in accessing information, be it course content presented on a whiteboard or understanding the physical layout of a chemistry lab. 

Nieto relies on assistive technology, responsive faculty members, test-taking accommodations, and general support from DSPS (which Nieto refers to as the "great equalizer of college") to help him adapt so he can spend less energy navigating the learning environment and more energy actually learning. 

“Mesa DSPS has helped me a lot,” he said. “I feel like I could take on any class here.”

As for prospective SDCCD students with disabilities, Nieto offered advice rooted in personal experience.

“If you're graduating from high school, keep any disability documentation with you,” he said. “Register with DSPS [and] talk to a counselor to find out what courses are appropriate for you.” 

Beyond the Classroom

Nieto's quest for knowledge extends beyond the classroom and into the vibrant culinary scene of San Diego, a city he affectionately described as a "foodie's paradise." Throughout the week, you can often find him savoring the delights of local cafes, with Bird Rock Coffee Roasters and Cafe Calabria ranking among his current favorites. 

DSPS is so grateful to Juan for sharing his story, and we can’t wait to find out where his explorations take him next!

Student Spotlights, presented by Disability Support Programs and Services, feature success stories from ambitious SDCCD students and alumni whose participation in DSPS has helped them reach meaningful education and/or employment goals.

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