by Adrianne Murchison
College life for Darien Todd is everything a parent hopes it would be. He has lived on campus, made friends and succeeded in his studies. Indeed, the outgoing 22-year-old Ellenwood resident describes Kennesaw State University’s Academy for Inclusive Learning and Growth as a life-changing experience. Two-year programs are offered to students with developmental disabilities who can audit two classes per week at the university.
“I love it,” said Darien, who lives on campus during the semester. “I describe it like any university where you’re just getting a college experience and doing the work. And for me, being able to go to college knowing I have a disability is great.”
Kennesaw State was the first university to offer post-secondary education in Georgia when it started in 2009. In addition to taking classes with typical undergraduates, students attend career planning and life-skills courses in the academy’s Academic, Social, Career, Enrichment program.
Darien is enrolled in the Advanced Leadership and Career Development program, which is offered after completion of the introductory course. It’s designed to expand on students social and leadership abilities.
Darien’s parents have witness independence emerge in him. “I think the program is great,” said his father, Derrick Todd. “I’ve seen a lot of growth in him, and being able to make decisions on his own with some support from the school.”
Thirty-two peer mentors are matched with Academy students to attend classes and internship job sites. The ultimate goal is to instill students with the confidence and skills to pursue any goals that they set their mind to, and to be able to advocate for themselves.
“Our hope is you would go to the middle of the campus and ask someone about the program and they say, ‘What program?’” said Neil Duchac, executive director of the Academy.
In the past, the Academy has organized trips to other parts of the U.S. In 2015, Darien, an Ellenwood resident, was one of a group Academy students to travel to Dubai to experience its culture.
He is one of 15 students graduating form the Academy next spring. Darien reflected on his time in Kennesaw’s inclusive program with GAIPSEC.
What are some of classes you’ve taken?
I’ve taken a global course where the teacher talks about what’s in the news and what’s going on around the world. Sometimes we talk about politics. I’ve taken classes in acting. That was one of my favorites. We would do a lot of improv. I took music in society and we talked about opera singers and a family of instruments.
What kind of internships have you worked?
I worked at the KSU market. It was a little shopping center where students go to get snacks on the way to class. I stocked, checked expiration, cleaned and organized.
I worked in the diversity and inclusion office. It was one of my favorite internships because I got an award. I helped them plan and put on an art show. [Separately], I helped at Zuckermans [Museum of Art] on campus.
I worked in a service that helps students that are in need of food and shelter. I would take calls and transfer to the right person and help in the pantry.
Why has this been so special for you?
To experience something that I didn’t think I would. I have had my disability for a long time – dyslexia – so I’ve learned how to live with it. It’s something that I love about myself.
Reading is easier for me now.
Students get two mentors, one for each [audited] class. They’ve made it really easy to do the homework and catch up on class.
You were already an outgoing young man before attending the academy, what impact has it had on your outlook?
If I didn’t have this opportunity, I would be fine because I was already kind of social, but being there escalated it more. I always had an open mind but this made my mind way more open. I learned a lot of things I didn’t know, and it helped me to learn what I want to do while I’m in college and when I get out of college.
What was it like to travel to Dubai?
It was a breathtaking experience just to visit somewhere else and their culture. We visited different sports facilities, their college campus. We talked about the academy and what we do in our classes. It was really good.
What would you like people to know about Academy students?
It’s not easy growing up with a disability but it’s not impossible. We will work hard at anything we choose to do. We are human just like anyone else. “Disability” is just a word. It doesn’t mean we can’t succeed.
I have a really great support system in my parents and family. Parents-wise, I know it’s got to be scary. It’s normal but don’t be too scared about whether he or she will succeed past the limitations that you think he might have, that would limit us to [a certain] type of work we can do.
I think this experience helped me to balance money and make adult decisions that I’m going to have to make when I get out of college. Living on campus gave me that independence and made me the man that I am today.
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.”