Christine Lenahan, head of the Community of Inclusive Scholars Program at Salem State, has been helping young adults with intellectual disabilities and autism gain college experience for six years.
The program is funded by a grant through MA Higher Education and is part of the Massachusetts Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Initiative (MAICEI). MAICEI is a partnership between local school districts and state universities and community colleges to provide a two-year inclusive college experience for students 18-22 who have been identified as having autism spectrum or intellectual disabilities. Participating students enroll in two courses per semester classes and participate in a four-hour-a-week paid internship. Partnering districts also provide students with an educational coach who supports students across campus. Salem State is one of eleven MAICEI partnerships.
“Students see they are in college…there is a whole new dynamic,” said Lenahan underscoring the goal of the CIS program to give the students a place to transition into adult life after they turn 18.
Many school districts provide transition programs for students 18-22. However, in most transitional programs for students with autism and intellectual disabilities students are given little access to same-age peers. CIS mirrors post-secondary programs available to same-age peers providing continued academic, social and employment opportunities.
CIS students are given educational support so that they can gain the independence that one would expect of a college student. In turn, the Salem State community is given a chance to interact with people with disabilities, and to take part in a setting that has intellectual diversity. With the push for diverse spaces on college campuses in the United States, the CIS students can add a new layer that has been missing in the past.
“When we talk about diversity on campus we are usually talking about students around gender, students of color, about origin, but we don’t really talk about disability. That’s really the most diverse group—it cuts across all demographic areas.”
“[I] take pride…that I can be an active participant with students with intellectual disabilities or autism and see their development within an academic setting,” said Lt. John McCune who helped supervise a CIS internship.
Other faculty have agreed, saying that working with these students has helped them to improve their teaching. In the future, Salem State staff and students can expect to see more of the CIS students. The parents of CIS students have also seen the benefits of the program.
“One of our son’s goals for years has been to attend college like his siblings, and now he proudly wears his SSU sweatshirt and asks us to call him ‘college boy’,” a parent said.
Salem State has just received a planning grant to prepare for an expansion of the program for fall 2022. If implemented, Salem State would be one of two MAICEI partnerships offering an inclusive residence life program. The other university with a residence life option is Bridgewater State University. Salem State is fortunate to be awarded this grant.
Selected CIS students would live in SSU dorms, dorms, and would have expanded academic and social opportunities. The grant would fund tuition, room and board, residence staff, and peer mentors to support students in accessing campus social activities. In preparation, the grant will fund training for staff. Looking towards implementation for fall ’22, a pilot peer mentor program has been initiated for this school year.
Lenahan added, “We appreciate the support of faculty and staff in their work with CIS students and staff. It has truly been a positive experience for all.”
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