If De’onte Brown could’ve somehow seen into the future on his first day of class at Georgia State University in 2017, he would’ve been very surprised by his transformation.
In what felt that day like a fast-paced new world has become a place that feeds his creativity.
“Once you get used to campus and used to the teachers, then you start to do better,” De’onte said.
He is a student of film and video production in Georgia State University’s Inclusive Digital Expression and Literary program, known as IDEAL. The post-secondary education course of study is for students with intellectual disabilities, and a project of the Center for Leadership in Disability on the GSU campus.
De’onte’s disability is developmental delay. He attends classes with students without disabilities.
His associate professor Niklas Vollmer witnesses remarkable growth in his IDEAL students as they become aware that they are included in the Georgia State University culture.
“In the beginning they have peer mentors assisting them and eventually they shed insecurities and gain more confidence,” Vollmer said. “They are learning how to create their own artwork and films whether as actors, behind the camera or recording sound.”
For class, De’onte made a short film of his life as an IDEAL student.
“He showed how he got himself together in the morning, how he leaves the house and gets on the bus, arrives at school, and who he hangs out with,” said Vollmer.
“I was stunned by that shift of confidence and the command of who he is. It was like he said, ‘I’m going to show you my community, how I get to school and my day.’”
IDEAL formally started in January 2017 with five semesters and two students to audit classes during the course of two and half years. Students attend two classes with fellow undergraduate schoolmates in art, film, theater and music. In addition, Spenser Norris, the academic inclusion advisor, teaches a specialized course in independent living skills
Eleven students are currently in the program. Two will graduate in May with a certificate in career development and readiness with an area of emphasis.
An on-campus internship is offered during the second year of the program at such places as the student radio station or newspaper.
Vollmer and Andy Roach, an associate professor in Counseling and Psychological Services are co-directors of the IDEAL program.
“When the Center for Leadership started getting involved in the post-secondary programs and working with the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities and other stakeholders in the state, we started discussion [wondering] ‘Can we do this at GSU?’”
In 2015, two potential IDEAL students informally audited Vollmer’s film classes.
“They seemed really engaged and excited about filmmaking and technology,” recalled Roach. “And then we realized that filmmaking, photography, music and arts might be areas where they could find their voice and express themselves in ways that more traditional avenues [weren’t] open for them.”
Nicholas Moore was one of IDEAL’s pilot students who helped to pave the way for the current program. The Alpharetta High School graduate is diagnosed with autism and was interested in animation and film, as he was a volunteer on the middle school film production team at church.
“We owe a lot to Nicholas,” said Vollmer. “There was no infrastructure or protocol to support him besides a handful of faculty and staff members who were trying to keep him rolling along. Without knowing it, we were building IDEAL.”
Nicholas took at least four film-related classes and became skilled in incorporating music and animation. And though he does not have the same level of speaking skills as typical students, Nicholas bonded quickly with his classmates.
“Definitely people in the class got to see a whole different perspective from Nicholas,” said Matthew Mammola, a former graduate research assistant. “He would show his work in front of the class. One of the things he is into is stop-motion animation and he creates short films.”
Rita Young, Nicholas’s mother said the GSU experience was one of the best of his life. “He loved the fact that classes were very different from high school and focused on doing work,” she added. “He would talk about film that the class watched and he had exposure to different genres and directors. It was very inspiring to him.”
Even now that Nicholas is out of school, Vollmer is mentoring him on a short film that he’s creating.
The IDEAL program student age range is 18-26.
“Students are both excited and nervous to be coming to college with their peers,” said Norris. “We do a lot of orientation before school starts.”
IDEAL students learn the campus landscape and meet typical undergraduates and peer mentors. As weeks go by, they begin to enjoy college life and embrace new responsibilities in much the same way as any other college student.
“Very quickly many discover that ‘I can go to the student center by myself. Or go to the [recreation] center and find someone to play basketball with,” explained Roach.
De’onte, who had no previous film skills before attending GSU, has learned to edit his own work and that of others. He is also comfortably working at the campus television station, GSUTV.
I enrolled in Albany Technical College's Leveraging Education for Advancement Program (LEAP) Fall Semester 2016. I was the very first student in the college’s brand new inclusive post-secondary education program which offers a Business Office Assistant Certificate. While in the LEAP program, I participated in job shadowing in different offices within the college’s admission department. This great experience helped me apply what I learned in the classroom, and I was also able to learn new skills.
I completed the LEAP program in August 2018, and I am now employed on a trial part-time basis as an office assistant with the Arthur K. Williams Microbusiness Center. I perform office duties to include answering the phone, typing documents, creating PowerPoints, filing, making copies, and greeting visitors. I am a fast typist and make great PowerPoints. I like the work that I do and the people that I meet. I hope to be able to keep this job after my trial period is over. My supervisors say that they love me and want to keep me. Working and earning a wage makes me feel good. Because of my experiences, my future is brighter.
My graduation ceremony will be December 6, 2018. I am excited and looking forward to what lies ahead.
by Marquis Boone
Albany Tech, Class of 2018
My son Drew is 20 years old and in his second year at Georgia Tech's Excel program. I can honestly say that he has surpassed my lifetime goals for him in just this first 18 months. Excel is making a life changing impact on Drew and us as a family. We are so fortunate to have found this incredible program.
We always believed that he would live with us for the rest of his life. We never thought he would be capable of living independently. He is now living in an apartment. He has developed friendships that I expect will be lifelong. He is able to walk to the grocery store to buy his food. He has learned to keep to his budget. He has learned to cook and can do his own laundry as well as clean his apartment. He has been invited to sorority parties and goes to sporting events. I guess my point is that he has learned to be independent but that he is also having the most fun in his entire life.
Excel has also quickly figured out his interests and their vocational team is working on skills needed to pursue his vocational dreams. They quickly figured out that he loves technology and animals and he has had internships in the IT Dept and the Humane Society. They have taught him how to prepare a resume , how to dress for an interview and so many other invaluable skills.
They start with the most basic skills and continue to progress as far as the individual student can go. I believe that by the end of these four years, he will be living independently and working in a job that he loves, not just one that he HAS to do. He is happy and thriving and I believe that is because of the Georgia Tech's Excel program.