University of Vermont

University Communications

New Program Helps Students with Intellectual Disabilities Think College

Taylor Terry participates in Professor Youngok Jung's childhood development course, an opportunity made possible for her and other students with intellectual disabilities, via the Think College Vermont program. (Photo: Sally McCay)

Stirling Peebles is beaming. She just received a B-plus on her first paper in Written Expressions and is starting to believe she can handle college-level coursework. Previous attempts at other institutions proved frustrating, but a new program at UVM for individuals with intellectual disabilities, called Think College Vermont, has the budding screenwriter on the right track.

“I love the college experience: making friends, socializing and learning a lot,” says Peebles, who has Down syndrome and wrote her paper on what it’s like living with the chromosomal abnormality. “I would like to continue on and get a bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a focus in film. Think College is a great opportunity for students like me to pursue their dreams to go to college.”

Launched in the fall of 2011 after the Center on Disability & Community Inclusion (CDCI) won a five-year, $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Think College Vermont is an inclusive, academic, social and vocational program for students with intellectual disabilities seeking a college experience. The initiative is one of 27 such programs nationwide currently funded by an $11 million federal program designed to open doors for individuals with intellectual disabilities by improving their employment opportunities and ability to live independently.

The initial cohort comprises four students who take nine credits of coursework, including one primary academic course, a socially focused course like yoga or art, and an internship in an area they hope to work when they graduate with a Certificate of Professional Studies from Continuing Education. Program coordinator Kiersten Hallquist organizes the schedules and activities of the nine UVM undergraduates who serve as mentors and provide academic support, logistical planning and social support so students experience all aspects of college life.

“Vermont has been at the forefront of the inclusive education movement in the United States since the 1980s," says Susan Ryan, principal investigator of the grant and executive director of UVM's CDCI. "We would never have a project here at CDCI that in any way that supports segregation. Think College Vermont is an extension of our other Center projects.” 

Ryan, a professor of early intervention & special education with 35 years of experience in special education, says an earlier $15,000 mini-grant allowed UVM to position itself to compete for the larger federal grant. Ryan included Johnson State College as a partner on the grant and allocates $50,000 annually to the school to run a smaller-scale version of Think College. Since the grant money can’t be used for tuition for students, Ryan says Think College relies on Ellen McShane, student financial advisor, to help students identify funding and put together financial packages.

“This project brings those of us at UVM a bit closer to being the social justice institution to which we aspire,” says Fayneese Miller, dean of the College of Education and Social Services. “It is another door that has been opened, this time for a group of people who are rarely spoken of within the context of higher education. I am pleased and honored that Susan Ryan and her colleagues care enough to speak on behalf of people who sometimes cannot advocate for themselves.”

Gainful employment is the goal

Leah Boardman is on a 15-minute break from her Think College internship as a baker and prep cook at the University Marché in the Living/Learning Complex. She talks with pride about working at the Marché and touts it as the best place to eat on campus. Her goal is to work in the food industry when she graduates and already has a part-time job at Pillsbury Manor, a senior housing community in South Burlington.

“I’ve been cooking and baking with my mom since I was five years old,” says Boardman as she eagerly heads back to work before her break is over. "I like everything I do here, but I prefer baking. I’d really like to work in a restaurant (after graduation).”

The primary goal of the federal program Think College is to increase the quality of employment for its participants. Youth with intellectual disabilities who participate in postsecondary education are 26 percent more likely to exit their program with employment and 73 percent more likely to earn a higher weekly income.

Bryan Dague, program coordinator for Think College Vermont and a CDCI employee since 1992, is responsible for helping students land successful jobs by providing training and technical assistance in the areas of supported employment and transition. The Vermont State Division of Vocational Rehabilitation is a partner in the grant and provides $600 per semester to help students through the program and onto a better career.

Inclusionary learning is a two-way street

Another goal of the program is for mentors to help socialize Think College students through peer-to-peer interactions. In return, mentors and undergraduates who share classes with Think College students learn what it’s like to live with a disability. Youngok Jung, assistant professor of early childhood education, says the addition of Think College student Taylor Terry to her childhood development course has been a valuable addition to the class.

“It’s really rewarding to see the little amounts of progression toward independence that have happened in such a short amount of time,” says sophomore social work major Devon Miles who mentors Taylor. “A lot of the time we just talk about things that most students would talk about. The socializing is an important aspect of the program.”

Amber Casterlin, a senior nursing major, says she tries to push Peebles out of her comfort zone to try new things, but sometimes that motivation flows in the opposite direction, like when Peebles invited Casterlin to play racquetball with her. “I definitely get just as much out of this as Stirling does,” says Casterlin. “I’ve really felt the value of this experience and have truly benefited from Stirling educating me on what it’s like to live with Down syndrome.”

According to Peebles’ mother, Giovanna Peebles, Vermont state archeologist and director of the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, the mentoring piece was lacking at other institutions and has been critical to her daughter’s success at UVM. “One of the reasons we were so excited about the program was because the level of support was exactly what she needed,” says Peebles. “Stirling has always wanted to go to college, and UVM was willing to give students like her with alternative learning styles a chance. With the support of a mentor in the beginning to help her adjust to college life, she’s quickly becoming self-sufficient, and that’s the primary goal.”