Class loads, homesickness, time management and having a social life are just some of the things college-bound students and their parents think about when starting college. And, the same goes for students with disabilities. The students attending Georgia Tech’s Expanding Career, Education, and Leadership (EXCEL) program however, begin a college experience in a structured, supportive and inclusive educational opportunity from day one.
The EXCEL program also offers a college experience where students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) learn to be independent, learn from their mistakes, gain the abilities to make their own decisions and critically think.
EXCEL’s Mentorship Program, which is currently made up of 85 Georgia Tech students from all areas of study and interests, is designed to enhance that experience. Mentors and coaches capitalize on student strengths to achieve academic and social success in an inclusive college environment.
“I’m the poster child for inclusive programs,” said Rhonda Taubin, whose son Drew, 21, is a third year student in the program. Rhonda, like most parents of students with disabilities, was concerned about how her son, who is diagnosed on the autism spectrum, would react to new experiences outside of high school.
Students like Drew, their mentors and coaches meet weekly to discuss their chosen goals and how they can attain them. Once these goals are chosen, students work with specific mentors to help them with cooking healthy food, going to the gym, time management, class work and developing a social network.
EXCEL students are strongly encouraged to plan social events, and many participate in inclusive activities with non-EXCEL students. “We have students participating in wrestling, anime, and outdoor clubs, just to name a few,” said Ken Surdin, founding director of EXCEL. “Students are also joining campus Christian fellowships.”
“Experiencing campus life helps students become more comfortable with others,” said Savannah Lee, president of the Student Advisory Board at Georgia Tech and a coach of a fourth- and third-year student. She and the other coaches and mentors help EXCEL students take career classes, create employment goals and find internships while also encouraging independence and meeting goals. “Our jobs range from creating transition and employment goals, to helping students answer texts or create a calendar,” she said. Equally important, she believes in forming solid friendships.
Those friendships that Lee talks about have been key for Preston Tauscher’s 21-year-old son, Chase, a second-year student. Chase is bright but has vision challenges, as well as processing and speech delays that stemmed from being a micro-preemie – he was born 1lb 7oz. According to Preston, Chase needed an inclusive college program with a support system where he could implement strategies to make himself successful in the classroom, socially and with his independence goals. Chase’s mentors and coaches, who are also his friends, help him work on his person-centered plan (PCP), class schedule and fluency goals to find him gainful employment.
“The end game is to bring independence in each specific area,” said Luke Roman, one of two EXCEL Mentorship Coordinators. He works with mentors who help first and second year students. “How do we create self-determination while helping students transition into college life,” he questions, adding that each student’s PCP is to be followed by mentors and coaches.
Currently, there is a 2:1 ratio of students to coaches and the program has its highest number of students enrolled, since its launch in 2015, at 38. “We are one of the few [STEM] universities with a [college program for students with I/DD], so one challenge is trying to make classes more digestible for students interested in STEM classes,” Roman said.
EXCEL will have its first graduating class of eight students in spring of 2019, and for all of them, finding a job is a necessity. Before they graduate, EXCEL’s career team works to ensure a smooth transition. “The last three semesters, students take classes that cover eight key areas of post-secondary transition financial literacy, transportation, housing, and employment to name a few,” said Heather Dicks, one of three EXCEL Career Coordinators. “Our hope is that they are working before they graduate.”
To guide that process, first and second year students research what they’d like to do, almost like picking a major, and work four to six hours a week at on-campus internships. Building on their career interests, third- and fourth-year students complete off-campus internships with a range of employers including private businesses and nonprofits, averaging 20-25 hours a week.
Due to his strength in technology, Drew spends some time at his off-campus internship at Hotel Indigo diagnosing computer security issues and was able to fix one of the hotel’s printers. Previously, Drew also had internships in Tech’s IT department and the Humane Society while balancing his class load.
Surdin says that he wants EXCEL students to have college experiences that mirror their peers but also gets them ready for work experiences. He emphasizes, “We want to help them build the job skills that will get them employed.”
Parents who want to include college for their child have numerous factors to think about and communication can help make the right decision. “A lot of parents want their kids to find independence,” Preston says, “But you have to get out and talk to inclusive college programs to find what is best for your child to help them reach their goals.”
For Rhonda, EXCEL’s unique blend of fundamental academics and social growth is exactly that. “We always believed [Drew] would live with us forever, but this program has made a life changing impact on him and us as a family,” she said. “We are so fortunate to have found this incredible program.”
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 intellectual disabilities.
His associate professor Niklas Vollmer witnesses remarkable growth in 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 who 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 coordinator. 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, GSTV.
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.