Georgia Tech Program Prepares Students to EXCEL at Work

Group photo of EXCEL students.Navigating the world of employment after school is often daunting, and for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), this is particularly true. An inclusive post-secondary education (IPSE) program at Georgia Institute of Technology is striving to provide students with a foundational education that equips them with the necessary skills to succeed in their academic, professional and personal lives. 

The EXCEL program at Georgia Tech was founded in 2015. Its primary goal: “Expanding Career, Education and Leadership Opportunities for Students with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.” 

The idea [of EXCEL] is to create an educational experience and opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities that might not otherwise be able to get into a degree-seeking program,” said Ken Surdin, founding director of EXCEL. “So, these programs are certificate programs that provide inclusive opportunities for education and experiencing what any other adult of their age would experience when they go to college.”

The EXCEL program at Georgia Tech is a four-year program. During the first two years, students work to complete the first certificate in Academic Enrichment, Social Fluency, and Career Exploration. The second two years, the students work to obtain a certificate in Social Growth, Leadership, and Career Development. The program crafts a tailor-made, inclusive and traditional college experience for students with disabilities that allows them to live on campus, join clubs, do internships, take classes and build various skills to include on a resume. 

“To me, college is just like any kind of school you’ve been in as a kid, like elementary, middle school, high school,” said Zahmari Johnson, a student in EXCEL, who works in the campus recreation center. “For me, I see college as more freedom. You’re just here to have fun, make the best experience here, explore different new careers, get involved in clubs and career fairs. I feel like it also will help you learn what you want to actually do in your life after, once you go out into the real world.”

Preparing Students for Successful Careers

EXCEL places a strong emphasis on work and preparing students for success in their careers. One way students are prepared for the workforce is through internships. Students in the EXCEL program complete several internships during their time in school: two years of on-campus internships and two years of off-campus internships.

During their first semester they are encouraged to get acclimated to the Georgia Tech campus. After that students complete one internship per semester, according to the EXCEL website. In total, students complete a minimum of seven internships, which provide students with valuable experience in the workforce. 

“When we start meeting with students as freshmen, they are doing a small internship on campus. And what I mean by small is they’re only working about four to six hours a week. Students start there, and they get a few ideas of what they want to do or what they think they want to do when they graduate,” explained Heather Dicks, career development advisor. “By the end of sophomore year, when we start looking at an internship or maybe even applying for paid jobs off campus, you start to see the light bulb get even brighter in their eyes, where they are thinking, ‘I might want to do this as a job. I think I like this. I never thought about it before.”

Hear more from Heather Dicks here.

Developing Self-Advocacy Skills

To the team at EXCEL, as well as the student body, the program’s academics, internships and career opportunities are not only a matter of placing students with ID in employment. Rather, they also serve as a starting point for self-advocacy.

“Self-advocacy is when you are standing up for the things that you believe in and the things that you value about yourself,” said Martha Haythorne, a senior in the EXCEL program. “For example, I can say that I am a young woman with Down syndrome, and I accept who I am. We’re trying to teach other people that they can do the same thing.”

As the EXCEL program has developed over the years, self-advocacy has taken on a far more significant role, becoming an integral competency in the program’s learning outcomes. Self-advocacy can be found everywhere in EXCEL, as students are encouraged to advocate for themselves in every aspect of their lives, whether that is regarding their class schedules, internships or even personal advocacy endeavors.

“If [students] need support, they ask for it,” said Nathan Heald, assistant director and senior lecturer in the EXCEL program. “We want them to be the ones that are driving that force and talking with their coaches, their mentors, their advisors, so that they’re promoting their own interests and getting what they want out of the program. I think one of the ways that we do that is the customization of the program.”

Success of Internships Becoming Long-term Employment

Many alumni of the EXCEL program have already demonstrated the value of the program’s education. According to the EXCEL website, the program boasts a 92% graduate employment rate. One alum who exemplifies the goal of EXCEL is Sam Hicks. Including internship time, Hicks has worked for the Ansley Golf Club for four years now, where he continues to make practical use of his love of golf and hone the many skills EXCEL initially taught him, while picking up new ones along the way.

“I think you just have to keep trying with internships and jobs until you find one that you really like,” advised Hicks. “Even if you don’t like your job at first, it is important to get a level of trust and understanding with your employers and coworkers.”

The EXCEL program offers support to students with ID to ensure they find meaningful personal, academic and professional opportunities in the future. EXCEL is one of nine programs in the State of Georgia to provide such services, belonging to a larger network of IPSE programs known as the Georgia Inclusive Post-Secondary Education Consortium (GAIPSEC). IPSE programs have existed in Georgia since 2011. Although EXCEL and similar programs are still relatively new, the existing growth and progress provide hope for the future to people with ID.