Georgia State University’s IDEAL Rewrites the Narrative of The College Experience

Established in 2016 at the Center for Leadership in Disability within Georgia State University’s (GSU) School of Public Health, the Inclusive Digital Expression and Literacy (IDEAL) program was founded to provide students with intellectual disabilities (ID) the same academic, social, and career opportunities as their peers. 

Nestled in Atlanta’s vibrant media hub, IDEAL at GSU focuses on giving students a well-rounded experience. It emphasizes academic enrichment, community engagement, and career development in creative media. 

“Creative media industries are full of neurodivergent and creative thinkers, but people with intellectual disabilities are desperately underrepresented in all areas of the field,” said Project Manager Spenser Norris. “That’s why we created IDEAL.”

By immersing students in campus life and providing a robust support system of peer mentors, faculty, and staff, IDEAL enables students with ID to have the whole college experience. They join clubs, play sports, and participate in various campus events while on the college path to identify their long-term goals. 

Building Independence and Life Skills 

Parents of children with ID often worry about their future. Will they ever have the skills to be independent? What will their quality of life look like 20 years down the line? What will happen to them when their parents or guardians are no longer around? 

Vivianna Fernandez is mother to Cameron Kindree, an adult with Down syndrome. “Having a child with Down syndrome, I was told all the things he would be unable to do,” she recalls. “When he first started at Georgia State, I was worried about dropping him off.”

She would drop him off, wait at a nearby coffee shop, and pick him up after classes.  

However, with the program’s support, Cameron successfully learned how to operate the Uber app fully independently, and now he gets to school and goes to work independently. 

Along with self-determination skills, IDEAL has helped Cameron work toward his true passion for acting and break into the theater world. He is now a paid employee at Shakespeare Tavern in Midtown Atlanta. 

“He’s proved them wrong,” said Vivianna Fernandez proudly. “He’s proved them all wrong.”

Terrae Ward, mother to Hassan Davis, a young man with autism, emphasizes the importance of empowering individuals with ID to express their creativity. She notes how IDEAL has helped her son channel his love for trains, particularly Thomas the Tank Engine, into videography. 

“Put away your ideas about ‘your kid can’t.’ IDEAL will create an environment specifically for them,” said Ward. 

IDEAL tailors each student’s learning environment to ensure that students like Davis can take measurable steps toward independence and employment readiness. Davis is a summer intern at a marketing firm, and his tasks include scripting, storyboarding, and filming a documentary on MARTA train conductors. 

A Rite of Passage, Redefined   

College is designed to help young adults step out of their comfort zones and figure out who they want to be. IDEAL students benefit from a comprehensive college experience that includes developing life skills and independence. 

Myles Mason, a public speaking professor at GSU, witnessed a real transformation in his student, Quindarian Boykin. Once a quiet student, he began to show his personality, gain his voice, and deliver a persuasive speech about being a college student with an ID. IDEAL’s peer mentorship program plays a crucial role in these transformations, offering students a safe place to express themselves and navigate academic and social challenges. 

Aspiring filmmaker Justin Gold benefits from IDEAL’s tailored academic support structure. Professors help him navigate his path to becoming a blockbuster director and take manageable steps to achieve some of his dreams. 

“​​I want to have that big blockbuster everyone goes to one day,” said Gold, a junior in the program. “I learn from really smart teachers who are helping me figure out how to become a movie director and more independent in how I can do that and achieve some of my dreams.”

Lessons to be Learned

IDEAL knows that the path to independence and employment is not always easy. Peer mentors like Chaukari Hoskins-Arroyo are important in guiding IDEAL students through social situations and teaching them to recognize social cues. Another peer mentor, Isaac Bare, emphasizes the importance of understanding and empathizing with the students he supports. 

“Having someone your age to share experiences with makes a big difference. We learn together and from each other,” said Bare. 

College students come from all different walks of life, and many don’t know anyone when they first enter university. Bare finds it rewarding to see students succeed in gaining self-confidence and making new friends, knowing he has contributed to their personal growth. 

Allowing students to learn from their mistakes and try again is fundamental to the IDEAL program. Project Manager Joshua Cohen states, “This is the first time many of our students are exploring what independence means, being held accountable, and how all of that together is building a path to meaningful employment.” Parents of IDEAL students can let go of some of their stress, knowing that IDEAL mentors, faculty, and staff are there to help their students when they struggle. 

Turning Passions into Careers

Less than 20% of adults with ID are employed. At IDEAL, 75% of students who complete the program are employed or continuing their education. IDEAL alumni make an average of $15 per hour, well above the minimum wage.

IDEAL empowers students to translate their creative passions into tangible careers. 

Davis combines his love of trains with videography, while Gold receives support to navigate his video production journey. Boykin initially aimed to become a professional musician but found new aspirations through IDEAL. He discovered a talent for public speaking and now aspires to advocate for others with ID. 

Isaiah Branford’s involvement with Album 88, GSU’s college radio station, led to his dream job at Criminal Records, a renowned music store in the music hub of Little Five Points. Isaiah has a talent for memorizing different aspects of music, including instruments, record dates, and even artists’ birthdays, making him an excellent customer service representative. IDEAL has helped him get to where he is today by taking classes in film and music. 

Eric Levin, the owner of Criminal Records, says, “It’s been an honor and a treat working with Isaiah. It was a no-brainer hiring him. Isaiah has proved to be one of the friendliest and most attentive employees Criminal Records has ever taken on.”

At Shakespeare Tavern, Cameron Kindree uses the life skills he gained from IDEAL to go after his dreams of acting and singing. Laura Cole, Director of the Atlanta Shakespeare Company at Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse, has helped him hone his acting skills and learn more about the industry through costume design and administrative work. 

“Cameron has been a paid employee with Shakespeare Tavern in the costume department for a year,” reflects Cole. “He’s bright, wants to help, and wants to learn. His work ethic is beyond measure.”

He has worked on several student productions, including designing costumes for the play McBee, or “The Scottish Play,” as people in the industry call it. Through numerous rounds of costume design, he conveyed the story of a stabbing in a play. Cameron is very interested in learning about the process of directing and continues developing his storytelling and creative design skills. 

Giving Students the Future They Deserve 

By fostering independence, creativity, and a sense of community, IDEAL rewrites the narrative of the college experience. Here, students are empowered to navigate the vibrant world of creative media, a field rich with creative possibilities yet often lacking support structures for those with intellectual disabilities. 

IDEAL creates a supportive community to which students can return for lifelong support. Peer mentors, meaningful connections with faculty and staff, and a robust college experience boost self-confidence that extends beyond employment. IDEAL is more than just a college program; it catalyzes a fulfilling life. 

“Everyone at IDEAL is invested in making sure that our students get a fair shot at discovering who they are and use their talents to build a meaningful life that includes friendships, a career, and independence,” says Norris. “It’s a real honor to see the transformation of our students, from their first day to the day they graduate, to become confident, discover their passion, and discover who they are meant to be. And, we are all better for it.”