Master's student juggles class, work, and new family responsibilities

AMARILLO – For the busy schedule he’s led the past two years, Patrick Cornelius could easily have been working on a master’s degree in juggling. After all, he’s worked full time, taken his full graduate course load, squeezed in volunteer work toward his hours and taken on the care of two young children.

The juggling act would be enough to wear anyone down, but Cornelius says it’s all worth it to help him achieve his goals. This Saturday, when Wayland Baptist University awards diplomas to 106 students in a 2 p.m. ceremony, Cornelius will be among nearly ten individuals crossing the stage as the first to complete the Master of Arts in Counseling.

The MA in Counseling started two years ago in an effort to provide graduate opportunities for area residents who wanted to work toward counseling certification either in licensed professional counseling or in school counseling. With a strong enrollment since the first classes began meeting, the program has flourished and this year’s class is the first crop of graduates.

For Cornelius, the timing of Wayland’s new program couldn’t have been better. An Amarillo native and graduate of Palo Duro High School, Patrick had always had the goal of becoming a counselor and working with children from troubled backgrounds.

“In the neighborhood where I grew up, the kids were always getting into trouble. I would hear them talk about going to a counselor but they’d say, ‘They don’t understand me,’” Cornelius said. “I felt that growing up in the ghetto, so to speak, I could speak to those kids and relate to them better. Maybe I can reach at least one kid.”

Cornelius transferred to Wayland after his freshman year, earning a track scholarship that helped significantly in paying for college expenses. He also played intramural basketball with friends, studying toward a bachelor’s degree in psychology. During an afternoon pickup game, then-head coach Todd Thurman saw Cornelius play and asked him to try out for the junior varsity team. After a year on that team, Cornelius tried out for varsity basketball and played two years with Thurman, also running track.

Though he completed the undergraduate work in 2004, Cornelius had a year of athletic eligibility left to play basketball, so he enrolled in the master’s degree program in management with a psychology specialization, figuring he’d pick up a few classes he could transfer elsewhere to get the master’s degree.

Then life took a different turn. Just a few months into his graduate work, Cornelius’ brother was arrested and charged as an accomplice to murder, resulting eventually in a 14-year prison term. The family faced a challenge in finding caregivers for his two sons, then ages 6 months and 3 years. With few options and the possibility of his nephews entering foster care looming, Cornelius opted to take on the care of Skylen and Ty’Lael, who go by Sky and Ty, himself.

“When this came up, I was barely 22 or 23, but I didn’t know what else to do. I decided to see what I could do to keep them,” he said. “Now, they’re my world. But it has been a challenge. All of a sudden I’m taking care of a 6-month-old, and I had no clue what was going on. Potty training was tough.”

Patrick’s mother, who has legal custody of Ty, has been crucial in the process, as she gave her own son a crash course in parenting and watches the boys on weekends while Pat, who has legal custody of Sky, comes to Plainview for class. His grandmother watches the boys after school while Pat works and puts in time toward his counseling hours. But he is the primary caregiver and financial supporter for the boys.

With new family responsibilities, Cornelius knew he might have to change his plan for graduate school in Austin. Fortunately for him, Wayland had just announced plans to begin the master’s degree in counseling that next fall, making a smooth transition for the athlete.

“I liked the environment here and it seemed to be a good thing for me to stay,” he said. “It’s tough doing all this and having two kids. But it will all be worth it.

“At first, (getting the degree) was for me and my mom, but now it’s for Ty and Sky. I want them to have a better life than I had for myself. I want them to have more and be able to give them that.”

Cornelius works full-time for the City of Amarillo as assistant program coordinator in the recreation department, then leaves to spend a few hours at the Wesley Community Center, an Amarillo center where he works with youth and earns hours toward his license in professional counseling. On weekends, he completes his coursework at Wayland and plans to take the LPC exam when he graduates. At that point, he plans to move himself and Sky to Dallas where he has other family and work in the counseling field under a licensed counselor, earning time toward his 3,000 hours that qualify him to practice solo.

Eventually, Cornelius wants to pursue the doctorate in psychology and have a practice working with youth, hoping to make a difference in the lives of troubled kids to whom he relates so closely.

“When you grow up in that area, you have to fight or you always get picked on. If we had the resources as a child, the money for counseling and so son, maybe my brother would not have gotten into the trouble he did,” Cornelius said.

Cornelius knows the struggle and stigma of youth in trouble firsthand. In fact, an incident from his youth days nearly prevented him from finding an agency with which he could earn counseling hours. After being turned down a few times, he finally found a willing place at the Wesley Center.

“Belinda (Gonzales Taylor, executive director) was amazing and she gave me a chance,” he said. “She has always had open arms and never judged me.”

Taylor spoke highly of Cornelius as well, confident in his abilities to be a great counselor one day.

“Patrick is dependable, dedicated and invested in providing therapeutic counseling experiences for the clients he works with here,” she said, adding that three young boys in particular have bonded with him during play therapy and are seeing marked improvements in behavior. “He is a pleasure to work with, and he’s a team player with a champion heart.”

Cornelius hopes his struggle serves to encourage youth to avoid getting into trouble that will follow them for life, and he wants to inspire those same young people to pursue education and work toward better lives. As the first in his family to earn a college degree, he is encouraging them to continue their education as well. He credits Wayland with helping him make his dream come true.

“Wayland is the whole part of my dream coming to reality,” he said. “If I never went to Wayland, I don’t think I would be where I am now. The program was perfect and it made it possible for me to get the graduate degree.”