Cal State LA doctoral graduate helps immigrant families navigate special education
He began a tenure-track professor position at San Diego State University in the fall.
By Jillian Beck | Cal State LA News Service
While growing up in Tijuana, Mexico, Paul Luelmo noticed certain family members struggling to read social cues and obsessing over specific interests.
Many years later, as he studied special education, Luelmo recognized those behaviors as signs of mild autism spectrum disorder. His relatives were not diagnosed. Because of a lack of autism research and training, many in Mexico were left undiagnosed and underserved, Luelmo says.
He hopes to help continue the push to change that.
“I want to make a difference, I want to change something,” says Luelmo, who graduated in May with a Doctor of Philosophy in Special Education through the Cal State LA Charter College of Education/UCLA Joint Doctoral Program. “I want to pursue education because that’s a way you can make a difference.”
At the start of his career in education, Luelmo taught students with mild to moderate disabilities at Richard Merkin Middle School, a campus of Alliance College-Ready Public Schools in Central Los Angeles. It was inspiring and fulfilling to see the students grow and excel, Luelmo says.
One of his former students struggled with memory and math. Luelmo worked with her over the span of three years, watching her improve as he crafted strategies to help her better retain the lessons. Last year, she graduated from high school and started her first year of college—at Cal State LA.
In those five years teaching, Luelmo found he was not only instructing the students, but also teaching their parents how to get services for their children in school. His experience helping primarily low-income and minority parents advocate for services for their children with disabilities ultimately influenced him to pursue a Ph.D.
Born in Los Angeles but raised in Mexico, Luelmo would cross the border daily to attend high school in San Diego.
On his daily journey to school, Luelmo witnessed the struggles faced by noncitizens who were seeking opportunity in the United States. He now traces part of his desire to advocate for Latino immigrant populations through education back to those memories.
In his doctoral research, Luelmo evaluated the effectiveness of programs that utilize low-income minority parents of children with autism to teach other parents how to navigate the special education system.
He partnered with a Los Angeles-based community organization to develop trainings, videos and materials parents could use to help other immigrant and undocumented Latino parents advocate for services in school for their children with disabilities.
Luelmo was the first in his family to graduate from college, receiving a Bachelor of Arts in Political Economy from the University of California, Berkeley. He then received a teaching credential from San Diego State University and a Master of Arts in Special Education from Cal State LA.
He was one of only six students in his class of the special education doctoral program at Cal State LA to be selected to have their full tuition funded through a U.S. Department of Education grant, Project LEAD, which aims to support an increase in faculty in the field of special education nationwide.
While teaching courses at Cal State LA throughout his program, Luelmo consistently received high ratings from students, said Professor Lois A. Weinberg, coordinator of the Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education at Cal State LA.
“Paul is all around an amazing student and an amazing person,” says Weinberg, who has helped advise Luelmo. “It has been a privilege to work with him.”
Luelmo credits Cal State LA’s focus on student success and the support of his professors in the Charter College of Education, like Weinberg and Professor Holly Menzies, with helping him achieve his research goals.
In the future, Luelmo hopes to work with organizations in Tijuana, Mexico, to improve autism training for teachers.
After Commencement in May, the 34-year-old became another step closer to realizing that dream—he started a tenure-track professor position in special education at San Diego State University in the fall.