Real World Work Experiences Enable Inclusive College Students at Columbus State University to Emerge as Workforce Leaders

Students enrolled in the GOALS program at Columbus State University (CSU) are getting critical opportunities for real work experiences at the start of their inclusive college careers.

Guidance and Opportunities for Academic and Leadership Success (GOALS) at CSU is a two-year college certificate for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Thanks to a partnership with The Posh Peach, a small business located within walking distance from the GOALS building on CSU’s campus, GOALS students are getting an opportunity to have real-world work experience at a local work site. The Posh Peach, a woman-owned small business, was created by Erin Widick, a CSU alumnus, in May of 2014. A former business marketing major, Widick “threw everything [she] had into opening the boutique.” The Posh Peach offers a hand-picked collection of clothing, shoes, accessories, and gifts for everyday life and special occasions. Widick’s goal is to provide high-quality items at an affordable price for the free- spirited woman. She is also an enthusiastic advocate for people with developmental disabilities. Stephanie Marshall, former special education teacher and GOALS Program Coordinator, is “constantly looking to find work-based practicum sites for [GOALS] students so they can see what it’s like to have several different work experiences. These experiences provide opportunities for our students to explore a variety of work options as well as pursue their interests and demonstrate their many gifts and abilities.” Many GOALS students start at CSU without any past work experience. These work- based practicum opportunities allow students to try a variety of different tasks, develop and refine skills, and inform or guide their career goals. Additionally, work experience provides mentorship opportunities, builds a professional network, helps students secure references and letters of recommendation, and ultimately gives students an advantage in the job market. An important entrance requirement of the GOALS program is the desire to be successful in competitive employment. Most inclusive colleges, including GOALS, require students to intern at a place of their choice at the end of their program. Additionally, the GOALS program includes work- based practicum at the start of college.

“Giving the students opportunities at the beginning of the program gives them confidence, builds their resumes, and allows them opportunities to dream in ways they hadn’t thought possible,” said Marshall. “One of our students found his passion to bake,” Marshall shared, “after we took a group of our students to a cooking class to bake cookies for Valentine’s Day. That was very exciting to witness.”

College students across Georgia have felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic economic downturn, and the shift to virtual work has meant a significant reduction in the number of internship opportunities available to all students. The lack of internships negatively impacts entry-level job placement for students with and without disabilities. This fueled Marshall’s search for additional work opportunities for GOALS students.

In the spring of 2022, GOALS students started pre-employment training, which include writing resumes, applying for jobs, and practicing interviewing skills. The students attended a career fair on campus with their peers and learned about how to engage with employers. The week following the career fair, GOALS students Caleb Griffin, Thomas Harkins, and Samuel Asher had the opportunity to participate in a group interview with Widick at The Posh Peach.

Marshall said that the students appeared relaxed in the group interview and “she was blown away with how well they did. They helped each other, and it was a positive experience for them all.”

Over the course of the last two semesters, four GOALS students have had the opportunity to work at The Posh Peach and gain training and experience in an open and inviting work environment. Students worked two to three days a week completing a variety of tasks, including stocking shelves, stuffing bags, cleaning, and greeting customers. Marshall reported that “many of our students were uncomfortable with greeting customers at first, but they got used to it and enjoyed it.”

Following the four- to six-week work experiences, the students completed self-evaluations. These evaluations provide students with the opportunity to reflect on what they’ve learned, areas of interest, and focus areas for improvement.

“I love that we can help a person or persons with disabilities grow their skills for the next step after college while helping them build their confidence,” said Widick.

Using a person-centered planning process, GOALS provides students with developmental disabilities the opportunity to set and work toward their personal post secondary goals as a foundation for active, lifelong career and community participation. Students complete 36 credit hours of inclusive and program-specific courses along with work-related internships that are designed to support the academic and personal leadership development of students.

“These work-based practicum sites are very important for our students. They are the first experience our students have in the GOALS program. We want it to be a positive and enlightening experience,” said Marshall. GOALS aims to provide students with 3-4 work experiences plus an internship before they complete the two-year program.

Marshall continues to build a network of local businesses in Columbus who are interested in supporting work opportunities for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She aims to involve more businesses to provide GOALS students with additional work options.

“I want to provide our students with programs that match their interests. The GOALS program doesn’t aim to just find students jobs. We aim to develop leaders in the workforce,” said Marshall.

Contact GOALS at CSU to learn how to apply to their next cohort of students. Space is limited so be sure to apply as early as possible!

Contact Stephanie Marshall: