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.