One benefit of working at an institution such as Vanderbilt is being surrounded by high achievers. Each day I am inspired and challenged by the excellence-seekers that make up this community, in which groundbreaking programs, medical and technological advances, prestigious awards and impressive national rankings are
But the people who make up the Vanderbilt community – faculty, staff and students – are more than the sum of their white papers, accolades and academic degrees. They possess something more: a passion for using their knowledge, time and energy to serve those among us who are marginalized and disadvantaged.
The View’s cover story this month highlights just a few of those in our community who embody this spirit of social justice that is so deeply woven into the warp and weft of Vanderbilt’s fabric. The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center has long championed the rights of individuals many academic institutions have passed over – those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Now, its revolutionary pilot program Next Step is shifting the academy’s paradigm to invite these learners into Vanderbilt’s community.
The program isn’t charity. It’s filling a legitimate gap in the educational system, where those with learning differences are traditionally disregarded. In Next Step’s brief existence, participants are already learning, thriving and gaining independence.
One aspect that makes the program special is that each Next Step participant is linked with five Vanderbilt students who serve as mentors, lunch buddies and friends. The mentors don’t get college credit for their involvement, and they’re not paid a dime. But they offer something that the program couldn’t function without – acceptance.
The simple act of sharing a meal and talking about one’s struggles can be life-changing for a young person with self-esteem issues. The boost in confidence it provides can open the door to a more effective learning environment. Young people who have struggled their entire lives to learn, to grow and to fit in now have a place to do just that and are finding hope that they can lead an independent life. Not surprisingly, their mentors are discovering that they’re transformed by the process as well.
In my life I have known individuals with disabilities. I have watched them struggle with rejection and disappointment.
I have watched as they were taunted on the school bus and teased about being different. I often felt ashamed that I was so fortunate – that I could so easily coast through life with my own differences and shortcomings hidden from view while theirs were out for the world to see. When I saw those kids’ lunches being taken or a teacher stand them in a corner, I always knew deep down that we were more alike than different. It’s just that some of us have more elaborate defenses for covering up what society might see as weak, flawed, wounded or different.
I’ve always been proud to work at Vanderbilt. But after spending time with the Next Step students and the remarkable Next Step staff, I am bursting with a new kind of pride knowing that in the midst of supremely bright and intellectually advanced people, there is a place for learners with the odds stacked against them.
Editor in Chief, Vanderbilt View