In this first installment of #WhatStartsHere, we are spotlighting alumna Taylor Woodard (LBJ School of Public Affairs, MPAff/ School of Social Work, MSSW ‘14), who has made social justice and disability advocacy her life’s work. Read on to learn more about her journey from a small town Texas ranch to Washington D.C., where she is advocating for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.
From Texas Ranch to the Big City….After graduating from a small high school in Junction, Woodard left her family’s sprawling ranch to pursue her studies at Trinity University in San Antonio. No longer surrounded by livestock and acres of pristine Texas Hill Country, she had a whole new, exciting world to navigate. Once she found her bearings, she became heavily involved in campus life and disability advocacy. “At first I was completely intimidated by the academic background of kids from the big city and private high schools. It seemed they knew everything. But, if nothing else, being disabled teaches you to be persistent and I just worked harder to do well and keep up with those very enlightened young adults.”
Making a U-Turn…After interning at JP Morgan Chase during her junior and senior year, Woodard moved to Manhattan accepted a full-time position at the New York-based banking corporation. She was living what many would perceive as the “American Dream,” yet she soon realized that her passions lied elsewhere. “I moved to Manhattan with great hopes of continuing my personal campaign of spreading hope and making a difference from within the corporate world. However, once inside, those opportunities simply were not there.”
Time for a Change…While stranded on her scooter—for the third time that week—on the platform level of Grand Central Station due to elevator outages, she realized that she needed to make a change. “That situation forced me to see that not all public policy was effective public policy. This, and other situations coupled with my dismay at the prevailing values of the financial industry drove me to acknowledge that I was in a field for which I had no zeal.”
Living Her Values…In 2010, Woodard came to UT Austin, where she pursued dual-master’s degrees from the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the School of Social Work. With the goal of making the world a more accessible place for people with disabilities, she focused her studies on advocacy, program development and leadership. “More than anything, I wanted to live my values. I knew then my career would be in public service, advocating for the marginalized, primarily people with disabilities.”
Making her Mark on the Forty Acres…With support from Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD), Woodard graduated with honors in both of her fields. In 2012, she and SSD staff members co-founded the Disability Advocate Student Coalition (DASC), the university’s first cross-disability advocacy organization that advocates accessibility policy and supports education and awareness across the campus.
Leading Disability Rights…After graduation, she accepted a Paul Marchand Internship at The Arc, the oldest and largest advocacy organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Later, she was hired by The Arc as a program associate. Now in a career that is both rewarding and challenging, she is leading communications efforts for The Arc as an assistant to the Senior Executive Officer of Communication, and to the Senior Executive Officer of Individual and Family Support.
Advice for Fellow Longhorns…”Your college years are a time when you can become an expert not only in your chosen field, but also on yourself – your strengths as well as those areas where you may need a little assistance at times. Develop and use that knowledge to advocate for the tools that will propel you to success. Set high expectations for yourself, work harder than everyone else around you, and always have faith that you will reach your goals.”