Graduating senior Mauricio Serrato chose to attend Illinois State because it was affordable, close to home, and a place he had heard great things about. What he didn’t know was that he would be steered away from biology and to therapeutic recreation, a major that would fulfill his goal of helping others.

Serrato, of Hanover Park, had always wanted to study medicine and initially majored in biology. In his sophomore year, he talked to his academic advisor and decided to switch to therapeutic recreation—a field he had not been previously familiar with.

“I wanted a path where I could have more interaction with people rather than simply studying the anatomy and physiology of living organisms,” Serrato said. “I found TR, therapeutic recreation, which has been really great. You get to work with a variety of people who have mental illnesses and disabilities and provide them with therapeutic activities to help improve the quality of their life.”

This fall, Serrato put his classroom learning to use as an intern with Amita Health at St. Joseph Medical Center in Joliet under the supervision of Thomas Tyrell, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist. Serrato spent 14 weeks working in the acute care psychiatric behavioral unit, assisting patients prior to discharge. Tyrell modeled an efficient and effective recreational therapist for Serrato.

“He’s been doing this for almost 40 years now, and it’s amazing to see how much someone’s insightfulness and ability to offer therapeutic education and activities can impact a person’s life,” Serrato said. “The best part was getting feedback from patients on how our services have positively impacted their lives.”

Before his internship Serrato completed 400 volunteer hours over a four-month period, from April to July 2021, the majority completed through the Northwest Special Recreation Association (NWSRA). The NWSRA provides recreational opportunities to individuals with disabilities.

Serrato volunteered with the association as an aid at a summer camp, where he worked to ensure that all children at the camp felt included and supported throughout day-to-day activities.

While his internship with AMITA dealt with the clinical side of therapeutic recreation, Serrato’s work with the NWSRA placed a focus on the recreational aspect of the field.

“Special recreation is all about providing added adaptations to recreational programs or activities, so people with disabilities can engage with and feel included as part of the whole unit,” Serrato said.

These opportunities intensified Serrato’s passion to pursue a career in which he could improve other people’s quality of life. After graduation Serrato will take a year away from school to work and gain more experience in TR. Then he plans to return to school for his master’s in occupational therapy.

As a first-generation student, Serrato is most looking forward to celebrating his accomplishments with his family at winter commencement.

“I’m doing the stage crossing more for my family than for myself, so they can be a part of it,” Serrato said. “The whole college thing is new to my family, and they’re excited to put that diploma up on their wall.”

Coming into his undergraduate career, Serrato knew what he was passionate about and eventually found a path that would align with those interests. His advice to current students is that they do the same.

“You can take time to think things out,” Serrato said. “It’s all right if you change your path along the way; just find what makes you happy and pursue what you want.”

This story is one of a series of profiles on Redbirds who are graduating this December. For more information about how Illinois State is celebrating commencement this semester, visit the Graduation Services website.