Earlier this month, six exceptional young men and women walked across a stage at Vanderbilt University as they graduated from their program of study. Although this may not seem like an extraordinary event at a prestigious university, it was a night that made history. These were not the typical Vanderbilt students. The graduates were young adults with intellectual disabilities - the inaugural class of Next Steps at Vanderbilt, the first post-secondary education program for individuals with disabilities in the state of Tennessee.
When I began my career in special education less than 10 years ago, I worked with parents who had just received an intellectual or developmental disability diagnosis for their child. I expected to field difficult questions as they wrestled with the new reality that they faced as a parent. I was prepared to give information about the disorder, list resources for various therapies, and make educational recommendations.
It was the questions about their child’s future that left me grasping for words: Will he ever go to college? Will she live on her own? Have a job? Will he have friends?
The answers to these questions were not easily articulated. Not only is the long-term outcome for every child different, but the post-high school programs and services offered to adults with intellectual disabilities are limited, and the statistics for employment and independent living are less than encouraging.
But just a few years later, as program coordinator of Next Steps, I found myself listening to Provost Richard McCarty give a commencement speech, acknowledging our students as the newest members of the Vanderbilt University community. I shook the hands of our six students knowing that each was entering a meaningful job or internship upon graduation. I saw an audience of their undergraduate peers give a standing ovation for their friends.
The answers to the questions that I fielded a few short years ago had changed – there are now more possibilities, more opportunities, and more success stories to share.
Next Steps at Vanderbilt is a two-year, non-degree program for individuals with intellectual disabilities between the ages of 18 and 26. It is one of the nearly 170 post-secondary education programs nationwide that are a part of this growing movement. Although each program is unique when it comes to the type of host institution, the residential options offered, duration, levels of inclusion, and eligibility requirements, all provide a valuable learning opportunity for participants who, only a few years ago, would not have had the chance to attend college.
As with many of these programs, Next Steps’ mission is to provide transformational learning experiences for young adults with intellectual disabilities, university students, staff, faculty and community members.
When I first tell people about the program, they often ask why a student with intellectual disabilities would go to college. I usually respond by asking them why they went to college. The goals for our students are consistent with those of “typical” undergraduates: continued academic learning, increased independence, a broader social circle, career exploration, and job preparation. Just as most college seniors strive to have a job upon graduation, our students work hard to find gainful employment prior to completing the program.
Next Steps exemplifies how post-secondary education can create a world of experiences and opportunities for its participants – and transform a campus. There are four main focus areas – academics, independent living, job preparation, and social skills. Each semester, students enroll in one Vanderbilt academic course and three Next Steps classes (Independent Living, Self-Awareness, and Career Technology). Students also learn and practice skills like budgeting, cooking, and cleaning to increase independence. On-campus internships help students explore career interests and gain job experience each semester. They also have the opportunity to enroll in a local trade school in an area of their interest.
The social component of the program is vital to its success. Undergraduate volunteer mentors (called “Ambassadores”) support our students throughout the day. They engage in a range of activities from having lunch and working out, to tutoring and helping with homework and organization. More than anything, they are friends. The Ambassadores plan social events, attend athletic games, and just “hang out” with the students on a regular basis.
On both a professional and personal level, seeing the first set of students graduate and move on to jobs in the community, I am overwhelmed by the doors that have been opened and feel privileged to be a part of something so groundbreaking on this campus.
There is still work to be done and there are many more students to reach. But, I remain optimistic knowing that a parent of a child with a disability can now be encouraged by the post-secondary education movement and the prospect that their son or daughter could one day walk across the stage of a top university, cheered on by his peers, before moving on to meaningful paid employment - a dream for most any other parent.
Kelly Wendel, M.Ed., is the program coordinator for Next Steps at Vanderbilt. She provides behavioral and educational support to students and teaches Career Technology to better prepare them for employment. She also recruits, trains, and manages the peer mentors who volunteer with Next Steps.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.