Kent State’s Career and Community Studies Program Creates Meaningful Experiences for Students With Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities | Kent State University

Kent State’s Career and Community Studies Program Creates Meaningful Experiences for Students With Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

After four years of development, Kent State University’s Career and Community Studies program is officially established. Career and Community Studies is a four-year, nondegree program that requires 120 credits to complete. 

“These credits are obtained by blending specialized Career and Community Studies and inclusive Kent State courses, using a transition curriculum to assist students in achieving adult roles and a quality of life within their community,” says Vonnie Michali, director of the Career and Community Studies program. 

The Career and Community Studies program’s mission is to create meaningful experiences for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities by maximizing opportunities in order to equip them to become self-determined and autonomous adults.

“The Career and Community Studies program is for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, traumatic brain injury or autism who could not get to college through the traditional doors by passing the entrance exams,” Michali says.

To be able to participate in the program, students must be at least 18 years of age and have graduated from high school.

The program’s developmental phase, which ended last May, began in 2011 and followed the same students throughout the initial four years. The research gathered during this phase guided the final curriculum program that was approved by the Kent State University Board of Trustees.

Eighteen of the 20 students completed the program in May, when they were able to attend two graduation ceremonies. One ceremony was specific to the Career and Community Studies program where Kent State President Beverly Warren and Alfreda Brown, Kent State’s vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, recognized the accomplishments of each student. Students could also choose to participate in the universitywide undergraduate ceremony. 

Program Welcomes New Freshman Class

Eleven new tuition-paying students are currently enrolled in the Career and Community Studies program. Six of these students are living on campus in residence halls.

Awareness in the program has spread to students from states across the country who have indicated interest in coming to Kent State to be part of the Career and Community Studies program. Michali says she receives emails and phone calls from students and their families from other states, and people abroad who live in countries, such as India and South America.

“These are students who received special education services through their high school,” Michali says. “In 2008, the U.S. Department of Education says that students with intellectual and developmental disabilities who would like to go to college to better prepare for adult life should be able to have that opportunity. College is way more than just the academics. Even though that’s important, there’s also the whole social and independent living piece. It is a time to grow up and mature, to find out who you are and what you want to do, and to set goals and prepare for adult life.”

So far, the Career and Community Studies’ students seem to enjoy the independence that comes with living away from home for the first time.

“I’m loving it here,” says Brady Stephens, a first-year Career and Community Studies student. “It’s nice to live in the dorms, but I can still go home on the weekends. I’m becoming more independent.”

Stephens says that even though the transition was difficult at first, he has enjoyed living in the dorms, attending classes and taking a bowling class downtown at Kent Lanes. He says he has learned how to use public transportation independently, and he is learning how to manage his time and money through meaningful life experiences and from his coursework.

Developing a Curriculum to Serve Students Well in Their Future

The focus of the transition curriculum is to develop independent living skills, personal social skills, academic skills, and exploration and preparation for a career of the student’s choosing. Career and Community Studies helps students maximize self-determination skills that will help them to make meaning out of what they learn that will serve them well in their future.

“We have such a vast number of Kent State courses our students can take,” Michali says. “Many times, students in other programs are only able to choose classes from a list that is identified for them. Here, we work with all of the colleges, except for a couple that have very specific requirements to get in.”

During the first year and a half of the program, students take a variety of classes to help them identify their areas of strengths and difficulties. Once students identify a career choice based on these strengths and difficulties, they take classes within that college to help them gain the knowledge and skills needed to be successful in that career.

Kent State was one of two universities in Ohio to receive a grant to develop a program giving students with intellectual and developmental disabilities a traditional college experience. Kent State and the Ohio State University were both awarded grants to start programs, and Ohio State provided seed money from their grant to four other universities and colleges in the state. Six total universities in the state provide programming for students with intellectual disabilities, but each program is different from the other, Michali says.

“We still have some more developing to do,” Michali says. “We had four years to develop this, but it’s not enough. There are improvements and more tweaking to do, especially in the career piece. Not only do students need to prepare for a career, but society needs help in recognizing that with additional transition time these students can become productive, contributing and valued members.”

The program requires that students exit high school. During the development phase of the program, there was a mixture of students still connected to high school and some who were not. It became obvious that it was confusing to students and their families to be connected to high school while in a college program, Michali says. 

“Moving forward in the new program, all of our students must be finished with high school,” Michali says. “The other big change is during the pilot program, we enrolled students between 18 and 22 years of age, but now students just have to be 18 years or older. There is no restriction for how old they can be. However, it is very important that older students who have been out of school remain active so that regression of skills is minimal.”

Because the program is no longer funded by a grant, Career and Community Studies’ students now pay tuition, Michali says. They also have to pay some additional semester fees to cover support costs, including undergraduate student workers, who serve as peer mentors, to support and guide the students.  

“Our program has been approved as a Comprehensive Transition Program (CTP), which means that our students can apply for financial aid, even though this is a nondegree program,” Michali says. They are able to apply for financial aid for the Pell Grants and work study only, and they cannot take out student loans.

Program Participants Enjoy Privileges Accorded Kent State Students

Career and Community Studies’ students have the opportunity to live in residence halls alongside other Kent State students.

“Our students who live in the dorms really do excel at their college experience, and I think it is because they are here and they have to learn how to do things for themselves,” Michali says. “What’s so great about the College of Education, Health and Human Services’ dorm is that our students are surrounded by people who have a passion and an interest for helping others, so that has been a really great match. We want our students to get that inclusive experience by living right alongside all students who are living on campus and to be spread throughout the dorm, which is a testament to Kent State’s openness to diversity of all kinds”

Students enrolled in the program are full Kent State students who have the same privileges and access to all resources, including services such as the Health and Wellness Center, the Student Wellness and Recreational Center, University Libraries and Student Accessibility Services.

Student Accessibility Services provides accommodations, such as extra test time and a quiet place on campus to take tests, to help students succeed. Career and Community Studies students are also able to take advantage of opportunities to participate in the clubs and organizations on campus. In the past, some students in the program have joined clubs such as Ballroom Dancing, History and RECESS. 

Michali says that in the future, she would like to expand the Career and Community Studies program to Regional Campuses so it can reach more students in those communities. She would also like to work with high schools to help interested students become more prepared for the program and to collaborate more with adult services providers to help students transition to their communities after completing the program.

The Career and Community Studies program is now accepting applications for fall 2016. It will accept 10 to 12 students each year until the program reaches a capacity of 45-50 students. 

Learn more about Kent State’s Career and Community Studies program.