As one of 20 model programs in the United States for transition and postsecondary programs for students with intellectual disabilities, Syracuse University’s InclusiveU sets an example other programs want to follow. Through InclusiveU, an initiative of the Lawrence B. Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education, students with intellectual and developmental disabilities are part of a strong community where they are fully included with their peers.
“We have made it our practice to align all of our initiatives with existing pathways at the University,” says Bud Buckhout, director of InclusiveU. “It is our hope that there will be no difference between traditionally enrolled students and those enrolled through InclusiveU.”
Andrew Benbenek is in his junior year at InclusiveU studying broadcast and digital journalism in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. One of his favorite Syracuse University memories is volunteering at OttoTHON, a dance marathon fundraising event for the Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital. “I was asked to speak, and everyone was proud of me and chanting my name,” says Benbenek, who received treatment at the hospital for brain cancer when he was 8. Benbenek and other InclusiveU students take a reduced course load of two to three classes per semester, working toward a certificate in their area of study. In their senior year, they complete two full-time, 15-week internships in a variety of departments on campus and with local employers. InclusiveU boasts a 100 percent employment rate for graduates, compared to the national average of approximately 17 percent for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“College is a great place to experience the kind of growth to truly prepare for an enriching life,” says Beth Myers, executive director of the Taishoff Center. “Students leave here with all the benefits of a Syracuse University education, including a strong alumni base and a huge community of people who care about their success.”
Olivia Stomski, one of Benbenek’s professors, is director of the Newhouse Sports Media Center and professor of practice in broadcast and digital journalism and television, radio and film. Stomski first met Benbenek at a Newhouse Sports Media Center speaker event when he was a first-year student.
“I have really enjoyed watching Andrew challenge himself, work hard and succeed at so many classes, tasks and projects,” Stomski says.
Stomski has been inspired to advocate for InclusiveU students after witnessing how inclusive classrooms help everyone succeed. “The other students in our class saw Andrew as a peer and valuable team member,” she says. “Andrew’s groups and teammates were always very happy to have him on their team, noting that he not only contributed but brought new and fresh ideas to the projects.”
Peer encouragement is a large part of the InclusiveU experience. To make the most of their time at Syracuse University, InclusiveU students are paired with partners through the Peer2Peer Program.
“We have so many opportunities for traditionally enrolled students to get involved, and we see every day how much this kind of inclusion benefits everyone,” Myers says. Jared Khan-Bagley is an inclusive elementary education major in the School of Education. He was a peer partner in 2018, and in his job as a peer trainer, he helps plan events that bring InclusiveU students, mentors and the University community together. By working with their peer partners and connecting with others, InclusiveU students are more apt to be involved on campus.
“They step out from their comfort zones to see and interact with students who have different majors, interests, cultures, abilities and talents,” says Khan-Bagley. In addition to regular coursework, InclusiveU students take weekly seminars, taught by faculty and peers, on topics such as conflict resolution and personal budgeting.
“Students are learning to be independent and interdependent, how to work well with others, access the support and services of their community, advocate for themselves, stay healthy and happy, and build relationships alongside their peers in a very natural environment,” Myers says.
Students requested Khan-Bagley teach one of their seminars, so they could spend more time together while they learn. “It’s not even a mentorship, it’s a friendship,” he says of the interactions they have.
Khan-Bagley’s involvement with InclusiveU will also be beneficial in his career. “Every day I’m learning something new about these students and how they navigate the world,” he says. “InclusiveU is all about adapting and learning through the many lenses of student experience. This program highlights abilities rather than dwelling on disabilities.”
Evan Weissman, associate professor of food studies in the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, has taught InclusiveU students for the past several years. He sees firsthand how the power of the program extends to the campus community. “Other students are able to think about the diversity of our student body and see the opportunities for people at our University who have different life experiences,” he says.
Weissman says he appreciates the opportunity to be part of the effort to create a more inclusive learning space and campus. “As an instructor, diversity forces me to constantly reevaluate my teaching methods and ensure that I am delivering class content in ways that reach a wide variety of students,” he says.
As for Benbenek, InclusiveU has helped him make connections and find his place on campus—taking classes at Newhouse, working at the student-run CitrusTV and attending events with his friends. After graduating, he hopes to become a sports or wildlife photographer or videographer. He says InclusiveU has made a significant impact on his life.
“It’s given me opportunities I probably wouldn’t have had,” he says. “I hope all students in the program take complete advantage of everything it has to offer.”