Last fall, seven students unlike any that previously enrolled at Union University moved onto campus as the inaugural EDGE program class.
The EDGE program allows young adults with Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities (IDD), such as autism and Down Syndrome, to obtain a post-secondary education by taking classes designed to teach them life skills, such as cooking and balancing a checkbook, as well as classes with traditional undergraduate students. At the end of two years, the students receive a certificate. Union is one of only a few schools in the state that allow non-traditional, IDD students to participate in graduation.
This fall, the program welcomes ten new students as well as seven returning students. Fifteen of these students are living with undergraduates on campus.
Before school started, all the EDGE students and their mentors had a chance to get to know each other and bond at a retreat for a few days.
Each of the returning students has an internship off-campus. For example, Seth Ratliff teaches new car owners about their vehicle’s technology at the Jackson Mazda Center. All but one of the students are paid for their work.
Jennifer Graves, director of the EDGE program, said that the goal at the end of this year, particularly for students who will be finishing their time at Union, is for them to have viable employment skills and the ability to live independently.
Last year, after every school break, Graves’ phone would start ringing with calls from excited parents, astonished at how much their child had grown. When the students came back after summer vacation, she saw it for herself.
“When you’re up close, you don’t really notice it,” Graves said. “I’m proud of the growth and maturity our students have shown.”
The new students have on-campus internships in various departments and will be mentored by the second-year students.
For Becca Robertson, junior psychology major and president of EDGE, the significant impact of the program struck as she was talking with her EDGE student, Maria Tatman, during Welcome Week.
“She was telling me about what it’s like to be an individual with a disability,” Robertson said, “and Maria said, ‘I used to wish I didn’t have a disability, but now I know that if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be who I am today…’ Wow. What a great reminder. Our students are exactly who the Lord intended them to be.”
Robertson looks forward to seeing the students grow even more in the upcoming year.
“I love watching them overcome things they thought they could never surpass, and grow mentally, spiritually and emotionally here at Union,” she said. “I am so thankful to attend a university that gives students with disabilities a chance to further their education.”
For more information or to volunteer, contact Jennifer Graves at firstname.lastname@example.org.