Advocacy Day at the State Capitol Brings IPSE Students to the Spotlight

On January 24, 2024, the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) hosted its annual Inclusive Post-Secondary Education (IPSE) Advocacy Day at the Georgia State Capitol. The event serves as an opportunity for students with intellectual disabilities (ID) to advocate to the General Assembly for state-supported funding for IPSE programs. There are nine active IPSE programs in Georgia, with an additional program opening in Rome, GA at Berry College. 

IPSE supports individuals with ID in obtaining a post-secondary education and serves as a means for individuals with ID to learn and develop skills that can help them enter the workforce and live independently after college. Advocacy around the IPSE programs is to increase funding for the IPSE grants.

Alex Szelwach and GSU IPSE students stand at the podium to speak.“This day is so amazing for our students because they get to tell their story,” said Alexis Szelwach, Transition Coordinator for the University of Georgia’s (UGA) Destination Dawgs, which is UGA’s IPSE. “They get to tell their stories to other students in other IPSE programs, and they also get to tell their story to other representatives and senators to help them understand how much impact they can make for the lives of other students to come.”

IPSE Advocacy Day is a special time for students with ID to have the opportunity to speak firsthand to their state representatives at the Georgia State Capitol about their time in the state’s IPSE colleges.

“The reason I love the IPSE program is because [UGA] gave me the opportunity to have an experience; I call it ‘an experience like a UGA kid,’ said Julia Nazarowski, a Destination Dawgs student. “It allowed me to become friends with my peer mentor, Liza Crane, and it allows me to meet people and advocate.”

Advocacy is the lifeblood of IPSE. Many students who participate in GCDD’s IPSE Advocacy Day are passionate about their advocacy because it allows future generations of students to also benefit from IPSE programs.

“I think [IPSE programs are] important because they offer a great place to help everybody with disabilities to be their best selves and achieve their dreams,” said Deriq Graves, a student in GSU’s Inclusive Digital Expression and Literacy (IDEAL) program. “I want [IDEAL] to be able to continue to do that for years to come.”

The students’ advocacy serves as a driving force for the increased funding for IPSE programs because the programs offer a personal account of the quality of life for students with ID. 

Peyton Ashcraft, a student from UGA’s Destination Dawg, and her mother, Lynn, came to Advocacy Days to lend their voices to the cause.

“It helps me to meet new staff, students, and helps me with some people that have disabilities [who] don’t know about the program,” said Peyton. “[It helps build] confidence. You can do all the independent things like I’ve been doing and just don’t be nervous about it.”

Program Directors Share their Passion for IPSE

Advocacy is also driven by school administrators, such as IPSE program directors and coordinators.

The IPSE program at Berry College is the first IPSE program at a private college in Georgia. Located in Rome, a city in northwest Georgia, the college, which is commuter-based, will provide education opportunities for students with ID in the immediate area, equipping them for a future of self-advocacy and independence. Michelle Haney, the Director of Berry College’s IPSE Program and the sole driver behind the program has worked for at least 10 years to bring IPSE to Berry College.

“Creating an IPSE program on the 27,000 acres of beautiful Berry College has been a dream of mine for many years- and now that dream is about to be realized!  The Berry College community is so excited to welcome our first cohort of students to the Berry College Program for Inclusive Learning Fall 2024,” said Haney. “Our IPSE program aligns with the Berry College mission, building on our founder Martha Berry’s vision of providing an education that allows individuals to learn skills and gain work experiences to become productive members of their communities.”

“I know that we have a lot of support, not just from the students and faculty at the Berry College Program for Inclusive Learning , but also the community of Rome, Georgia,” said Anne Bice, the IPSE Coordinator at Berry College. “We’re really excited to have another option available for students with disabilities.”

The heart of the Berry College Program for Inclusive Learning is student work, student life, and making connections with people, whether it’s your peers or your professors, reflected Bice. “Our students will have internships and jobs on campus, where they will learn real-life skills. They will work with a peer mentor during their internships and learn valuable life skills to help them gain employment after graduation.” she added.

Quote from article.Another director who is enthusiastic about IPSE and the students involved in it is Regina Watts, Director of the Leveraging Education for Advancement Program (LEAP) at Albany Technical College. Due to being housed at a technical college, LEAP offers unique education opportunities for prospective students with ID.

“Our students are finding academic success with the assistance of mentor tutors. Additionally, our students are engaged in life skills in general,” explained Watts. “They’re engaged in independent living skills, socialization, and employability skills. Some of our students have come to us very shy, not believing in themselves, but after the very first semester, they are a different person in the sense that they believe in themselves.”

Other IPSE programs in Georgia include the Kennesaw State University Academy for Inclusive Learning, East Georgia State College CHOICE, the EXCEL at Georgia Tech, the GOALS at Columbus State University, Destination Dawgs at the University of Georgia, the LEAP at Albany Technical College, Eagle Academy at Georgia Southern, GC Thrive at Georgia College and State University, and the IDEAL at Georgia State University

Support from Legislators

State legislators also play a significant role in the advocacy process, particularly since they are responsible for passing bills to enact positive changes for the disability community. 

The Berry College team met with Rep. Katie Dempsey (R – District 13), who is the Chairman of the Appropriations: Human Resources Subcommittee with the General Assembly. She is a huge supporter of IPSE programs in Georgia. 

Watts emphasized the importance of advocacy by sharing her experience with meeting and discussing IPSE programs with Sen. Freddie Powell Sims (D – District 12) who represents her district.

“I am thoroughly excited because I did speak with my senator, Freddie Powell Sims, and she hadn’t heard of IPSE programs,” said Watts. “But, she is elated now to know that Albany, which is her hometown, has the first technical college in the state to offer an IPSE program,” said Watts. “She asked that I send something to her office so that she can take it to the appropriation to work on getting additional funding for other IPSE programs. It was well worth my while to deal with the Atlanta traffic!”

Four students meet with Rep. Houston Gaines during IPSE Advocacy Day at the State Capitol.

UGA students visited their friend and supporter, Rep. Houston Gaines (R – District 120). He is one such advocate for individuals with disabilities, whose work dates back to his time in college.

“It all started when I was in college at UGA. I was involved in our Student Government Association, and there were some folks a year or two older than me that had been really active in trying to bring an IPSE program to UGA,” said Gaines. “I had the chance to work with them as we advocated to bring Destination Dawgs to the University of Georgia.”

Rep. Gaines and his cohorts’ advocacy worked, and his senior year of college was the first year to have Destination Dawgs attend UGA. Now, working as a state representative, Gaines continues to champion IPSE programs. Last year, with the help of Rep. Gaines and advocates from IPSE Advocacy Day, the General Assembly passed a bill that allowed a state-supported IPSE scholarship to help make inclusive education programs more affordable.

“Ever since I got elected, I knew it was an opportunity to help a program that I’ve been involved with for years before I was elected,” said Gaines. “Last year was the right year to do it. We started working on the legislation, and a lot of folks got involved and advocated for it and made sure that it happened. It was an incredible experience to be able to see that idea come to fruition.”

The students from Kennesaw State University Academy for Inclusive Learning met with Rep. Scott Holcomb (D – District 81), to advocate for increased funding for IPSE. He was enthusiastic about their mission and encouraged them to continue speaking out.

“Advocacy is very important because when we have, maybe, a hundred different things being presented to us, and we’re trying to figure it out,” said Holcomb. “And, most of what we do is just reading bills. And so by coming particularly in person, it brings the issues to life.”