Giving Students a Chance to ‘Excel’
New Program Creates College Opportunities for Students with Disabilities
For many high school students, graduation usually leads to the possibility of college or other continued education at more than 7,000 colleges across the country. Students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, though, have a little more than 200 choices in comparison to their peers.
This year, Georgia Tech began offering a postsecondary academy for high school graduates with mild intellectual and developmental disabilities. The program, Excel, provides these students with a learning experience in which they can build on their education, life skills, and independence. Students who participate in the four-year program earn two certificates: one in social growth and academic enrichment, and a second that also incorporates career exploration.
“We’re creating college opportunities for students who have historically been shut out of the college experience, and it’s a game changer because we are doing it at Georgia Tech, one of the top ten ranked public universities,” said Ken Surdin, director of Excel.
Around 2,000 students in Georgia high schools are eligible for this kind of program, but until Excel, there was only one program in the state offering 15 spots a year. Excel has eight students this year and expects to enroll around 12 additional students per year, with a peak enrollment of around 48 students.
Excel students take some classes as a cohort, and others with degree-seeking Georgia Tech students in inclusive classes, such as GT 1000. The Excel curriculum includes traditional subjects such as reading comprehension, math, and science, as well as life skills such as financial literacy, interpersonal communication, and community engagement.
“The ultimate goal is for students to continue their education, live independently, have a job they like, and develop a social network with their peers, who benefit from reverse inclusion by engaging with a more diverse student body,” Surdin said.
This year, the eight students — four men and four women — are living in two suites in the Square on Fifth apartments in Tech Square. In just two months, Excel staff members have seen noticeable changes in the way the students navigate challenges. One student took a bus by herself for the first time on her third day on campus.
“She had this huge grin because she had never done that before,” said Marnie Williams, peer support program coordinator for Excel. Williams manages the peer support and mentor components of Excel, which provide opportunities for Tech students to get involved in the program. “I’ve been blown away to see how much the students have grown and how much the peer supports have really stepped up to the plate with their involvement and commitment.”
Williams, a Tech alumna, holds a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering. As an undergraduate, she founded a Georgia Tech chapter of Best Buddies International, an organization that creates opportunities for young adults with disabilities. She first worked with students with disabilities in high school and missed the interaction when she came to college.
“They offered a perspective I didn’t have,” she said. “You get a completely new outlook on your environment and the world.”
Williams has found her Tech educational experience to be highly applicable to working with students with disabilities.
“The engineering mindset is extremely transferable to the social sector,” she said. “To look at the global problem of what opportunities individuals with disabilities have when they graduate high school, how do we provide a college education for them, and what does it look like here at Tech — I use that kind of problem solving every day.”
Excel’s peer mentors focus on fitness, academic, and social aspects of development for Excel students. Supports serve as volunteers who help Excel students adapt to Tech, learn about campus life, and get to know others on campus. Excel provides training for all mentors and supports.
Mentors help Excel students get plugged into campus life in ways they otherwise might not. Carrie Crayton, an Excel student, learned about Campus Christian Fellowship from one of her mentors and has been able to attend its meetings and events since coming to campus.
“I didn’t think I’d make friends outside of my program, but I’ve met a lot of people there, so that’s been really fun,” Crayton said.
Aside from meeting new people and learning her way around campus and Atlanta, one of Crayton’s favorite parts of being at Tech has been taking GT 1000.
“I’ve loved every minute of that class,” she said. “It’s different because I’m the only Excel student, but I love learning what other students are learning.” Crayton is also working on improving her computer skills and narrowing in on a career path — hopefully one that includes working with children.
As part of the career exploration aspect of the program, Surdin hopes to be able to incorporate what is best about Georgia Tech into the Excel curriculum. As Excel students express interest in particular topics, Surdin and his staff are working with faculty members to find opportunities for the students to take inclusion classes and learn more about different types of careers.
“It may be a way for them to discover something they’re passionate about, and that’s really what college is all about,” he said.
An Inclusive Community
Tech students helped shape the Excel program before it even got off the ground. The initial idea came from Terry Blum, Tedd Munchak Chair and professor in the Scheller College of Business and director of the Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship, and Cyrus Aidun, professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering. The two presented the idea to Tech students and formed a student advisory group to get support and feedback along the way.
Since taking the role of director in August 2014, Surdin has been excited by the level of support from students, faculty, staff, and alumni in the Tech community.
“The idea of disability has really changed,” Surdin said. “Students with disabilities are much more present in high school classrooms in this generation. Having this program at Georgia Tech gives us a fuller dimension to the idea of diversity.”
Excel is run out of the Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship, in partnership with Professional Education for enrollment. Funding comes from tuition and grants.
As the program continues to grow, Surdin hopes to integrate Excel students into campus life as much as possible. Those interested in partnering with Excel in some way can contact Surdin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Tech prides itself on being innovative and coming up with the next great thing,” Williams said. “People with disabilities have been left out of a lot of those conversations, but they have a lot to contribute.”