When Samuel Clark was looking at colleges, he had two criteria—a top film program and a path to success for students with disabilities. After he had narrowed his choices down to three options, InclusiveU at Syracuse University stood out for him.
“Syracuse was really the top favorite for me,” Clark says. “I knew that it was going to be the one.”
Clark will join the 95 students enrolled in InclusiveU this academic year—the largest group since the initiative of the Lawrence B. Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education began in 2014.
“We’ve grown drastically,” says Beth Myers, assistant professor of inclusive education and executive director of the Taishoff Center. “We plan to continue expanding to allow for more students in each incoming class.”
Through InclusiveU, students with intellectual and developmental disabilities receive all the benefits of a Syracuse University education as they work toward a certificate in various areas of study, including sport management, food studies, broadcast digital journalism and biology. They are fully included with their peers as they take classes, attend campus activities and learn to be independent.
“Syracuse University is seen as one of the best opportunities for an inclusive college experience,” Myers says. “Students are fully engrained in all aspects of campus life, from joining organizations to living in the residence halls.”
In 2019, InclusiveU boasted a 100% employment rate for graduates, compared to the national average of approximately 17% for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “Our students really get to explore their own interests and work toward a career in that field, just like any other college student,” Myers says.
For Clark, it was important to be independent but close to his hometown in Pennsylvania as he made a new path forward. He knew he made the right decision when he learned he was accepted to the InclusiveU program. “I felt really excited,” Clark says. “My parents were cheering with joy.”
Clark plans to take classes in film, studio concept and acting as he works toward his goal of becoming a film director. “I’m excited about going to class,” he says. “I feel like I can definitely do this. It’s going to be really hard work, but it’s OK—it’s the next step of growing up.”
Syracuse University is known all over the world as a leader in disability and higher education. Although InclusiveU is one of 20 model programs in the United States for transition and postsecondary programs for students with intellectual disabilities, being surrounded by a huge community of people who care about their success is what truly sets InclusiveU apart for students. And the campus community has seen firsthand how inclusion benefits everyone.
“When you meet somebody who may look, act or communicate differently than you, or who has a different life experience than you, it can enrich everyone’s college experience,” Myers says. “When our students take classes, make friends, join clubs, and share real, meaningful experiences with their peers, there is a natural understanding that we all have something to contribute.”
When you meet somebody who may look, act or communicate differently than you, or who has a different life experience than you, it can enrich everyone’s college experience.
Through the University’s online offerings to accommodate social distancing, InclusiveU has been able to reach and engage more students who may have barriers that prevent them from traveling to campus. “We have students attending virtually this year because of the University’s flexibility with online study,” Myers says. “This has been critical for students who need health supports during such a difficult time.”
Setting students up with the support they need to be successful remains a top priority. “We’ve stepped up our advising process to make sure our students have a smooth transition to this new way of learning,” Myers says.
First-year student Grace McDonald learned about the InclusiveU program at an annual event the program hosts. The State of the Art Conference on intellectual and developmental disabilities provides opportunities for colleges, universities, researchers, program staff, parents and self-advocates to learn about current research and practice in the field, and to network with each other. McDonald was thrilled to be accepted to the InclusiveU program. “I was shocked,” she says. “I yelled and jumped up and down, I was so happy.”
In August, both Clark and McDonald attended a virtual orientation as well as a residential first-year student orientation in which they were able to meet leadership staff and participate in activities while safely social distancing. “Everyone has been nice,” McDonald says. “I am happy to be in the program.”
This semester, McDonald is excited to take an inclusive entrepreneurship and design course through an interdisciplinary program in a partnership of the Blackstone LaunchPad & Techstars at SU Libraries, InclusiveU and the College of Visual and Performing Arts made possible by a donation by Gianfranco Zaccai ’70, H’09 and the Zaccai Foundation for Augmented Intelligence.
McDonald, who aspires to one day own a business, is feeling a bit nervous at the start of her first classes. “It is going to be a lot of work,” she says.
Despite any trepidation, McDonald is optimistic about this semester. She is eager to participate in Peer2Peer, a program in which InclusiveU students are paired with peer partners for additional support and encouragement. “I am looking forward to making new friends, joining clubs and going to events,” she says.
In the coming weeks, InclusiveU leadership staff will organize social events and provide support to ensure their students are benefitting from everything Syracuse University has to offer. As Myers welcomes the new and returning students, she says she is reminded how fortunate she is to participate in such a great initiative.
“To meet a cohort of first-year students, full of ideas and nerves and excitement—to watch them grow as individuals and go through all of the wacky and wonderful experiences of college, and know we will be there for them—it’s just amazing. I’m so grateful to be a part of this program.”