Trinity alumna returns to raise awareness for teaching students with exceptionalities


Heather Haynes Smith lectures students in one of her “Understanding Learners with Exceptionalities in School and Society” sections about facilitating lectures for students with disabilities. Photo by Claudia Garcia

In room 203 of Storch Memorial, you will find art created by Trinity alumni, pictures of family and friends and the welcoming invitation of Heather Haynes Smith, who graduated from Trinity in 1998 with a Bachelor of Arts in humanities and a Master of Arts in teaching a year later. She was in Chi Beta Epsilon, a cheerleader and an intramural office employee.

Today, Smith is better known for her work with students who have learning disabilities. She teaches a course called “Understanding Learners with Exceptionalities in School and Society,” in which students volunteer for fifteen hours to receive hands-on learning outside of the classroom.

While the lecture informs students of various disabilities, volunteering gives them a chance to learn directly about exceptional kids.

“You can’t just think about the theories. You have to see things in practice so that you can ask the tough questions and see things that challenge your own assumptions,” Smith said.

Yesenia Caballero, a junior English and theater double major, enjoyed the class, as well as the chance to teach exceptional students.

“She kept everything fresh when she taught it, which made the class fun and engaging,” Caballero said.

Caballero worked with a local charity, Providence Place, and taught students different types of dances.

“You go in with an attitude that it’s something that fulfills a requirement, but it proved to be a rewarding experience, and it solidified my passion for teaching. I’m now dead-set on getting my master’s degree,” Caballero said.

Kendall Hayes, a junior Spanish and Chinese double major, found Smith to be an extremely helpful advisor as she questioned what to do with her majors.

“She has this vast network set up, so I told her about my linguistic interests and how much I love people. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, but she helped me find venues where I could practice or do an internship or just get experience,” said Hayes.

Smith and her students have made great strides in the department; her three sections of the Learners with Exceptionalities course taught in 2016 were also nominated for the 28th annual United Way Volunteer of the Year award. Together, they contributed over 1,000 hours of volunteer service.

“The award ceremony is coming up and I am so excited. This shows the students that life can be interconnected. You can integrate life skills into any piece of curriculum to benefit students,” Smith said.

The passion behind Smith’s work stems from her exposure to disabilities early on.

“My father was the American with Disabilities Acts specialist for the governor’s office for years. He was in a wheelchair due to an accident that caused him to become paralyzed. He went back to school, studied urban studies and became an advocate for access for people with disabilities,” Smith said.

Smith has continued to prioritize fighting discrimination of the disabled.

Growing up there was a lot of discrimination, and we definitely felt it. I wanted an inclusive experience where people didn’t feel different. I want everybody to feel included and realize that everybody has differences,” Smith said.

Now, students in Smith’s classes want to make sure she gets the recognition she deserves for the promotion of disabilities awareness.

“She has a lot of experience in the field for what she does, and she’s been in this field of higher education about students with disabilities for a long time. She really deserves a lot more credit than she receives,” Hayes said.