The Auburn University College of Education is pleased to introduce Betty Schiffer Patten, Ph.D., as its new director of the EAGLES program. EAGLES, which stands for Education to Accomplish Growth in Life Experiences for Success, is a comprehensive transition program (CTP) for students with intellectual disabilities.
Patten is a three-time College of Education graduate who feels very strongly that she was “born to serve in the EAGLES program.” Her life experiences have provided unique insights into perseverance against the odds and a passionate advocacy for marginalized people.
“Education has always been the stabilizing factor in my life,” Patten said. “My maternal grandmother was an elementary school teacher. My identical twin sister Holly and I loved to play school when we were little. While we had many unfortunate circumstances in our home and family, our mom encouraged us in our education since she knew it could provide stability in our lives. School was predictable in an unpredictable life. Our teachers were always there for us and pushed us to grow, starting at a young age.”
Patten’s mother raised her daughters as a single parent following her divorce when the twins were just three years old. She did her best but suffered with her own challenges and struggled to provide for the girls.
“When we were in the third grade our grandmother died, and soon afterwards our mother was in a car wreck,” Patten recalled. “Our mom was in a coma for eight weeks, which turned our world upside down. Our paternal grandparents lived in Selma, so we stayed with them while my mom was in the hospital for months. We were so thankful for our grandparents, but school offered us consistency during such an unpredictable time. Our teachers at Head Elementary stepped in to make sure we could maintain as much of a routine as possible. Our grandfather would wake up every morning and drive us to Lowndes County, where Ms. Klinkhammer, one of our teachers, would meet us and take us to our school in Montgomery. Another teacher, Ms. Kenny, would keep us after school until Ms. Klinkhammer drove us back to Lowndes County to meet our grandfather. Of course these teachers inspired us to become servants. How could you not be inspired by people who rearranged their lives to offer stability to two young girls?”
As a result of the car accident, the twins’ mom needed many supports. Among other things, she lost the ability to gain and hold a job. This created additional stress in the home, but ultimately served as a catalyst for the twins to become independent and help their mother heal.
I feel that the Lord gave Holly and me the gift of education, which has in turn given me a sense of social mobility and allowed me to give back to others because of those who gave so much to us. This is a key part of what led me to where I am now.
“Holly and I had a lot of characteristics of children who came from a non-traditional home where our mom had her own struggles,” Patten said. “We hyper-focused on the things we could control and pushed each other in a positive way to grow and develop into hard-working adults. Through good times and bad, we were there for each other.”
As the girls’ mom traveled her road to recovery, the twins learned to make the most of unfortunate circumstances. They got themselves up and ready for school every day. They figured out how to help with the bills by earning money at a young age. They share a memory of pushing their lawnmower up and down the street hoping neighbors would hire them to cut grass to help make ends meet. Giving up was never an option.
By the next year their mother was back home and was adamant that the bright and plucky girls attend the best magnet schools in Montgomery. They were admitted to the same middle school, but then attended separate high schools, where they thrived. As their mother’s emotional difficulties worsened, the twins relied more and more on their teachers for emotional support.
“We loved our mother so much but what happened to her made life difficult for us, as well. The accident took a part of our mom away. She was struggling with depression and self-medicating to numb the pain and go through a transition she was never prepared to make. Her road to recovery made certain aspects of being a mom difficult. When your own needs aren’t being met, it is hard to meet the needs of others. Being twins and sharing our bond has been the most consistent part of my life. Later, after a few rough patches in my own life where I struggled with bitterness and disappointment, I developed a strong faith centered on Jesus Christ. I started to see the favor the Lord placed on our lives and how everything truly works together for good. I feel that the Lord gave Holly and me the gift of education, which has in turn given me a sense of social mobility and allowed me to give back to others because of those who gave so much to us. This is a key part of what led me to where I am now.”
Auburn comes into focus, provides security and direction
Through a complicated series of events, including student loans, Pell grants, and full-time jobs, the twins found their way to Auburn University.
“We worked some of the same jobs and really put on the ‘twin thing.’ We both thought being servers at Arricia was the best job ever,” Patten said. “We made great tip money there in the heart of Auburn, especially during football season. We sensed that Auburn was a great opportunity for us to build a stable life for ourselves rather than settling with just getting by.”
Holly, now a veterinarian in Tampa, was especially focused on greatness early on and inspired Patten to be a better person and student. After a false start in the College of Business, Patten enrolled in the College of Education, majoring in Special Education.
“After talking to my advisor, I had what I can only call an epiphany,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to serve others. I had experienced so much pain and deprivation that I had an innate sense of wanting to help others. It just felt so right, like the Lord was speaking directly to me. That moment changed my life, and for the first time I was able to really focus on my studies and started making excellent grades.”
As had always been the case, Patten’s teachers inspired her.
“Kelly Schweck was my advisor, and it was the same story, just a different age: a teacher who saw potential and called out that potential by guiding me. She and my other professors were so great to me. They created an environment for me to use my talents and interests to thrive within the structures they had in place for those in my major. There is so much to be said about those who build a construct that enables stability. It was at this time that I began seeing Auburn as a proverbial person, one that brought meaning and stability to my life. The College of Education—its special education program in my case—is organized to help you succeed. I had never felt so alive or motivated before.”
With her new sense of security, people began coming to Patten for help. She couldn’t believe the change. Everything began to make sense. Life was good. And it was about to get better.
Graduation, grad school, opportunities abound
“In my last semester I was named undergraduate of the year and our college’s graduation marshal,” Patten recalled. “Right after graduation I was hired full-time as a special education teacher at Auburn High. Then, through my professors at Auburn, I was offered a grant to study transition in graduate school. As an eager first-year teacher, I jumped straight into the Master’s program and also began working as a homebound instructor, so I was busier than ever before, but I felt like I was making a difference.”
At AHS, Patten was totally invested in her students. Looking for real-world connections to help them transition to adulthood, she created a sustainable school-based enterprise for students with disabilities to learn transferable job skills while raising money for community-based activities. The business was called Tiger Mochas.
“I embedded service into our program,” she said. “My students and I liked coffee, working hard, and giving back, so we created a coffee shop at the school to do those things. My students developed transferrable life skills, business and financial management experience, and social skills through greeting and serving their fellow students and teachers. In 2017, soon after completing my doctorate, one of my committee members, Dr. Cari Dunn, came to visit Tiger Mochas on a Friday. The EAGLES program was on the cusp of launching and I remember saying that if she ever needed help I’d love to get involved, though I doubted I’d ever have that chance. About a year later, I learned they were hiring a full-time director. I enthusiastically applied and here we are! I got the job. I feel like this is what I was born to do!”
Auburn is like a person to me. It provided me with a spirit of excellence that I can carry with me and a spirit of service to give back to others. I earned a great education here but also met people who helped me learn to value serving others.
Patten acknowledges there is no way she would have made it without the College of Education and Auburn University.
“Auburn was and is a very important part of my life,” she said. “No other place could have given so much to me, including introducing me to my amazing husband Austin, who is a veterinarian here in town. As I have said, Auburn is like a person to me. It provided me with a spirit of excellence that I can carry with me and a spirit of service to give back to others. I earned a great education here but also met people who helped me learn to value serving others.”
That certainly included her major professor Dr. Karen Rabren. “Dr. Rabren was a major positive influence on me, both academically and as a mentor,” Patten said. “She poured herself into me and from the start I aspired to be like her. I learned from her that if we don’t give our students the tools to succeed then we are failing them. They did not ask us to go into this field, we chose this career. Therefore, we must give them our everything because they are relying on us to guide them.”
“Teaching is not an 8-5 kind of job. It is a way of life. My teaching journey at AHS helped me build skills needed for the EAGLES program. I loved my students, my job, and the Auburn City Schools family, but deep down I wanted to be part of a transition program at the postsecondary level, since that is where I truly found myself. I knew that college not only prepared people for employment, but is also the place for people to discover who they are. People with intellectual disabilities deserve this opportunity as well. I never thought I would be back at Auburn in a full time position. It still seems surreal to me.”
Making EAGLES a fixture at Auburn
Now that Patten is in her dream job, her goal is to make the EAGLES program a permanent part of Auburn and its culture.
“I see EAGLES as a way to combine a life of service with everything I have learned during my academic, personal, and professional experiences,” she said. “I am a task-oriented person who thrives on growth, and my personal buy-in to the program is real because we are talking about bettering individual lives. I fully embrace this because of where I came from. I want to help the EAGLES program become a forever part of Auburn so more people can experience the beauty of this university and all it has to offer.”
Patten remains inspired by her students’ determination.
“Every day I get to share with others about the abilities of our students. As individuals, I love and respect them. They have made history as our first cohort of individuals with intellectual disabilities to attend Auburn. They are learning to advocate for themselves and are thriving in an inclusive environment. The EAGLES students are so capable. I see them working harder than those without a disability because they really want to be here. There was not always a time when they were able to be students at Auburn, but now they carry such a positive light everywhere they go. I am truly blessed to again be part of Auburn and to be a part of this life-changing program.”