Students with a heart for mentorship are the backbone of an innovative pilot program that provides a college experience for young people with learning disabilities
by Joan Brasher
photo by John Russell
When Andrew Van Cleave was a senior in high school, he told his parents that he wanted to attend college like his peers. But for Van Cleave, who has learning difficulties and limited fine and gross motor skills, a post-secondary educational experience with typically developing students didn’t seem likely.
Then his mother, Mary Layne, came across an article in the newspaper about Next Step, a two-year certificate program that Vanderbilt was piloting for students with intellectual disabilities. The Van Cleaves applied, and Andrew was accepted as one of the program’s first students.
“It was a ray of hope,” she said.
Elise McMillan, director of outreach at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center and one of the faculty directors of Next Step, has a 22-year-old son with Down syndrome and is one of the impassioned individuals who spent years formulating the program through a state-wide task force. Guiding the task force were representatives from the Down Syndrome Association of Middle Tennessee, the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, The Arc of Williamson County and leaders of the National Down Syndrome Society.
“We were all hearing from youth with disabilities that they wanted to go on to college like everyone else,” McMillan said. “Through our son Will, his friends, and so many others we have met, we have learned the true potential and gifts of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In too many areas of our society, they still do not have the opportunities that so many others have.”
The members of the task force discovered that only a few post-secondary programs nationwide could be found, and even fewer that included integrated classroom learning, internship opportunities, technical job training and student-to-student mentorship. McMillan and her associates set out to create a program that would be a model not only for the region, but for the country as well.
“Vanderbilt, Peabody and the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center always have been leaders in developing important programs and supports for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” McMillan said. “When we looked across our country, we saw there was a real void of programs, and we hoped to help change that.”
In 1975, Congress passed a law that in order to receive federal funds, states would be required to develop and implement policies that assure a free, appropriate public education to all children with disabilities. Since then, a whole generation of youth with disabilities has grown up in environments of inclusion alongside their typically developing peers. However, studies show that when students with disabilities complete their public education, usually at age 22, there are very few offerings of employment, continued learning or other opportunities within their communities.
“A person’s learning difference doesn’t need to undermine their opportunity to learn and grow,” said Next Step Program Director Tammy Day. “It’s not right that so many who want to learn are not given the opportunity to do so.”
Next Step received its funding from a grant through the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities and through a gift from Linda Brooks, a longtime member of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Leadership Council. In January 2010, the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center launched Next Step as part of a seven-university consortium called Think College, based at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
Six students were accepted into the inaugural Next Step class, and the first semester ran January through May 2010. Five more students have been accepted for the fall semester. Because Next Step is currently nonresidential, all participants are from the Nashville area.
The curriculum includes one Vanderbilt class per semester, such as Anthropology 101, which the Next Step participants attend along with traditional Vanderbilt students. Next Step students do not receive credit for the courses but have an independent learning contract for the class. Participation by Vanderbilt faculty members is voluntary. Next Step participants receive Vanderbilt identification cards and have access to the libraries, athletic events, the student recreation center and dining facilities.
In addition to their time in the classroom, Next Step students receive technical training through a partnership with Tennessee Technology Centers; receive life skills coaching, such as learning to cook, navigate the campus, manage money and use a computer and cell phone; and work as interns on campus.
Each Next Step student is paired with up to five Vanderbilt students, or “ambassadores,” who serve as lunch buddies, campus guides, mentors and friends.
Stephanie Rouch, a May 2010 graduate of Peabody College who majored in special education and plans to join the Peace Corps and work with adults with developmental disabilities, served as a mentor to Next Step participant Sean Faulkner.
“We would go eat dinner and just talk about his life,” Rouch said. “We would talk about what he was doing and the people that he had met, about his class.”
Rouch and Faulkner also participated in an art class together and traveled to Miami for an Alternative Spring Break trip.
“At first Sean and I had a hard time, because I was planning the trip to Miami, and every time we met, he talked about things he wasn’t excited about,” Rouch said. “But during the trip, he was really positive. Afterward, I really looked forward to meeting with him every week. I had developed a new appreciation for him, because I got to see him in a setting where he really thrived. That is the great thing about the Next Step program – the multiple interactions allowed me to get to know him and to love him as a friend.”
The ambassadores are the “backbone” of the program, according to Day, who has 30 years’ experience in the field
“Because the culture on the Vanderbilt campus is so much about volunteerism, it’s a beautiful fit,” she said.
But the mentorships are not just about the participants being exposed to Vanderbilt and its students, emphasized Day.
“Just as important is that Vanderbilt students get to have contact with the Next Step participants. Vanderbilt students are future employers and legislators, and the ripple effect is much larger than the participants we serve.”
Program coordinator Alice Kim, who graduated from Vanderbilt in 2007 with a bachelor of science in human and organizational development, oversees the recruitment of the Next Step student mentors, who hail from a broad range of majors. The campus Greek organizations, as well as Best Buddies, have helped tremendously in the recruitment process, she said.
“I am honored to know that my university is moving outside the traditional box and sense of what a university student should look like,” she said.
“The ambassadores were very fun to be with,” said Van Cleave, a sports enthusiast whose mentor took him to a Vanderbilt men’s basketball team practice.
“I sat with (former Vanderbilt basketball standout) Shan Foster. I thought it was cool meeting the whole basketball team for Vanderbilt and getting to know them and becoming friends with them,” Van Cleave said. “One of the players was in my Introduction to Criminology class last semester. This has been a great experience for me.”
Next Step students work as interns for several hours each week at one of various campus entities, such as the Development and Alumni Relations office, the Hustler student newspaper, the Susan Gray School, the theatre department and the campus bookstore.
“There is so much more to college than just academics,” said Jacquelyn West, program coordinator/job developer for Next Step. “The internship gives exposure to employability skills, including accountability, punctuality, supervision, following directions and much more. All of this allows them to be more productive and meaningful citizens. If you want to work and can work, then you should be given the chance to do so.”
Van Cleave did his internship at the Hustler. His supervisors at the paper “were helpful and supporting,” he said. “I liked working on box scores and articles for the sports column.”
Edward Nesbitt, an outgoing 22-year-old with Down syndrome, did office work, such as faxing and going to the post office, during his internship with Development and Alumni Relations.
“I like Next Step because I just feel more independent now. I’m on my own,” Nesbitt said.
A unique aspect of the program is job training, which will be provided starting this fall through a partnership with Tennessee Technology Centers. Depending on a student’s area of interest and level of ability, he or she can earn industry certification at the Tennessee Technology Center at Nashville in areas such as early childhood education and business systems technology. Additional certification programs are being developed.
“Our students will earn supplemental certificates, allowing them to work at their own pace for mastery in specific areas,” West said. “For example, early childhood education would prepare them to be a teacher’s assistant in a daycare. Business systems technology would help with a position in an office environment.”
Tuition for Next Step is $10,000 per year. When the Next Step students complete their four semesters at Vanderbilt, they will leave with a portfolio to share with potential employers. That portfolio will include their certificate of completion from Next Step, the certificates they earn at Tennessee Technology Center at Nashville, and evidence of their internship work and other activities, such as participation in an inclusive spring break trip.
“I have seen our students grow socially, become more independent and have a better idea of their future and career goals,” West said. “I believe college is a period of growth and exploration for everyone, and our students should be given that same opportunity.”
In the past, Van Cleave relied heavily on his parents for day-to-day needs. Since being enrolled in Next Step, that has changed, his mother said.
“He has made amazing progress. He picks out his own clothes, arranges his own plans with friends. The ambassadores are wonderful, but he is fine to hang out by himself, too, which is huge for him. He is using a debit card, managing money, texting his friends and using Facebook. His self-esteem and confidence have grown more in the past six months than in the past five or six years. Next Step is absolutely the reason for that.”
Next Step students are “pretty much like any college student,” Day said.
“They want to learn more about themselves. They want an independent life. They want a job. They all hope to find a special person and marry and have homes and families. They want what everybody else wants. We are trying to give them a way to do that.”
Additional photography by Steve Green
Faculty Support for Next Step
Support by Peabody faculty was invaluable in developing the Next Step program. Key supporters include Robert Hodapp, a member of the special education faculty and co-principal investigator on the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities grant that funded Next Step; Sharon Shields, a professor of human and organizational development who included a Next Step participant in her class last spring; and Carolyn Hughes, a professor of special education who is known nationally for her work in the transition of students with disabilities from school to the community. All three serve on both the Next Step Steering Committee and the Next Step Advisory Council.
Other Vanderbilt Transition Programs
Project Opportunity seeks to transition young adults with developmental disabilities from high school to employment opportunities at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and throughout the Vanderbilt community. Student interns ages 18-22 participate in an on-site training program from July through May, then compete for employment at VUMC or the university. For more information, visit www.mc.vanderbilt.edu/root/vumc.php?site=projopp.
The Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Clinic at Vanderbilt helps persons with intellectual disabilities, ages 17 and older, cope with behavioral and mental health challenges that exhibit in the after-school years. Often these challenges extend into later adulthood. The clinic aids individuals in improving self-worth, their relationships with others, and their overall life satisfaction. For more information, visit http://kc.vanderbilt.edu/site/ucedd/functions/page.aspx?id=476.
To learn more:
Next Step at Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt Kennedy Center
Inside Vandy video of Next Step participant Edward Nesbitt