Jordan Winfrey, 18, grew up with his mom’s assurance that college could be in his future. But the graduate of the Omega Learning Center in Douglasville found that his diagnoses of autism and speech impediment made finding the right fit a challenge.
“My mom always told me I could go to college, but I’d need people to help me along the way,” he said. “She stayed up all night one night and found the Academy for Inclusive Learning and Social Growth at Kennesaw State University (KSU), and once she showed me what they stand for, I knew I wanted to be a part of it.”
Winfrey got his first introduction to the program during a summer session that connected him with other prospective students, the faculty and The Academy’s goals.
Officially dubbed the Academy for Inclusive Learning and Social Growth (AILSG), the program launched in 2009 and is the oldest Inclusive Post Secondary Education (IPSE) program out of the eight in the state to provide higher education opportunities for high school grads with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD).
“We want to help them self-actualize as best as possible,” said Neil Duchac, PhD, The Academy’s executive director and an associate professor of social work and human services in KSU’s WellStar College of Health and Human Services. “We look for someone with a third grade reading level and no significant behavioral problems, who was part of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or something similar. We also ask for recommendations and a psychological evaluation. And students need to demonstrate an interest in pursuing their education.”
Many students come to the program with a two-year commitment and can be invited to remain for an additional two to work on advanced leadership and career development. But first, they participate in three academic, social and career enrichment classes each term and audit an elective from the general catalogue. Through the College of Professional Education, they also take courses in customer service, culinary skills or writing.
“As part of the inclusive piece, students also join a club on campus to be more integrated,” said Duchac. The university has about 200 clubs, and many of AILSG’s students opt for those connected to soccer, Disney or a religious group.
After the first term, students also sign up for internships. Duchac said KSU has cultivated 40 on-campus partners who can offer students six to 10 hours of work each week. During their final year, they can bump that up to 15 hours a week at a job on or off campus. Of the 45 students currently in the program, some are working in the university’s bicycle shop, the student recreation area and the bookstore on both the main and Marietta campus.
“Since its inception, the program has produced 122 graduates who have moved on to a variety of jobs,” said Duchac.
“One works at the University of Georgia (UGA) bakery, another is a lifeguard for the city of Atlanta, and another is doing coding with an engineering firm,” he said. “And we had one go to another program at UGA. Along with our support staff, we have advisors who follow them for six months to help them find a job.”
Winfrey said he’s been supported from the beginning. “People really take the time to make sure everyone is treated fairly, and everyone feels like they belong. I’m now thinking of staying for two more years and maybe getting a degree in psychology.”
Earning such a degree can change lives, and that’s the key point Duchac would make to legislators or others who ask about the program’s effectiveness.
“It changes lives in two ways: For our students, it may be the first time they feel accepted and have friends,” he said. “They’re not bullied, and they’re doing everything a typical student would do. It also influences any other student who interacts with them. The real gem of the program is that our campus has about 43,000 students, but you could never pick our students out.”
Discover more here about KSU’s post-secondary inclusive education program in Georgia that offers a unique university experience focusing on academic excellence, social enrichment and career development.