Students Excel at Georgia Tech

Elliott Smith has known he wanted to work with children since the seventh grade. After starting as an intern, Smith now works 35 hours a week as a teacher’s assistant at the Phase Family Learning Center in Alpharetta.

“It’s a good amount of work, but I still really enjoy it,” Smith said.

He started making progress on his career goals while completing the Expanding Career, Education and Leadership (Excel) program at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Excel is an inclusive post-secondary education (IPSE) program designed for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). Founded in 2014, the four-year program approaches post-graduation employment from multiple angles. Graduates receive two separate certificates in academic enrichment and social growth.

Smith is one of 12 students who graduated from the program this May. Amid the ongoing pandemic, 83% of the 2021 graduates currently have employment, according to Nathan Heald, a lecturer and the assistant director of Excel.

To get there, students are required to complete seven internships over the course of the program. They work on campus for the first two years, in addition to completing courses with other Tech students.

Heald says the program’s career development course allows students to develop their interests and capacities over four years. The program works with students to build proficiency in seven key areas of transition: social and leadership development, health and wellness, technology and communication, housing, finances, transportation and employment.

Eventually, students transition to off-campus internships, and they work between 15 and 40 hours per week. The Excel program has 39 active internship partners and a total of 135, including Trees Atlanta, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

Before starting his current job, Smith also interned at the Elaine Clark Center and the Frazer Center, both inclusive child development and learning centers in Atlanta.

“I felt like with everything I was just growing and growing each new moment,” Smith said. “The future is looking really, really good to me. I try to think about that a lot.”

Ken Surdin, the director of Excel, says the program is constantly growing. Surdin says he would tell the state legislature that Georgia could do more to help individuals with I/DD lead independent and productive lives.

“In the 2019 Case for Inclusion, it was noted that Georgia had just 12% of working-age individuals with I/DD in competitive employment – which is significantly less than the national average of 17.9%,” Surdin said. “IPSE programs in Georgia are an excellent investment.”

True Rafferty is another recent graduate with a competitive job. Randall Brothers, a lumber company in Atlanta, recently hired Rafferty as a full-time forklift operator. He received his certification after completing courses in supply chain and logistics.

Rafferty enjoys working and says he appreciated the chance to explore his options through Excel.

“I’ve tried some internships that I thought would be a good fit for me, but it turned out they weren’t,” Rafferty said. “I think it’s good that I realized that early on instead of after graduation.”

“A lot of people struggle after they leave college,” he added, “but Excel will help make that struggle a little less complicated. A little bit easier, if you will.”

Georgia Tech Excel: Expanding career, education and leadership opportunities