Graduating from college, despite intellectual disabilities

Dawn Spahr of Warrenville always hoped that her daughter would go to college, but she knew for that to happen, Tess would need a lot of support. After all, Tess has always had learning challenges and most people anticipated she would only earn a high school diploma.

But fortunately for Tess, 23, one Wisconsin college has different expectations for young people with intellectual disabilities.

Shepherds College, in Union Grove, Wis., was founded in 2008 as a post-secondary option exclusively for people with intellectual disabilities.

“The population we work with really distinguishes us,” says Tracy Terrill, the director of the college.

When the Spahrs first heard about Shepherds College, the unique nature of the program quickly became apparent. Tess graduated from Wheaton Warrenville South High School in 2007 and was in a transitional program and attending some classes at College of DuPage, but both she and her parents wanted to find a post-high school experience where she could live away from home and gain living skills and academics.

“I was like, (Shepherds is) exactly what I’ve been looking for,” Dawn says. “There aren’t really many options out there, at least that we found or heard of that was like this… There are kids who just sort of fall through the cracks after high school and transition programs, who can really do more with their lives.”

Shepherds’ three-year residential program was exactly what the family was seeking. The college teaches both general life skills and specific career skills in the areas of horticulture and culinary arts, with the goal of helping students develop “appropriate independence” for adult life.

“It looks different for each of our grads, each of our students,” Terrill says. “One student who is lower-functioning, if we can help her find employment … serving on a food line, that might be the best she’s ever going to accomplish. …Some of our higher-functioning students, they aspire to go well beyond that (and) they have the ability to go well beyond that.”

The school’s three-year framework is designed for students to reach their own level of independence in increments.

During the first year, students live in a dormitory-style setting, progressing to a group home in their second year and an apartment with a roommate in the third, with the goal of taking on more responsibility in meal preparation and household chores.

“(I like) living in the dorm because the girls are crazy….There’s some pretty interesting things that have happened in the dorm,” Tess says with a laugh, before recounting the story of one of the girls putting the wrong type of soap in the dishwasher, leading to an evening of sud removal-and an inadvertent lesson in cleaning up messes.

“It’s that progression all the way through, with every component of everything we do,” says Angela Houk, dean of the college. “(We’re) giving them more and more responsibility, more and more freedom, more and more independence, so that if they fail, there’s a cushion. In order to grow in independence, there has to be opportunity for failure.”

And as with any college freshman, there’s a period of adjustment. Tess says the experience was “nerve-wracking.” She didn’t know what to expect and missed her family and friends. According to Houk, that period of transition is the most difficult part of the three years for most students.

“You have students from all different backgrounds … and different expectations were placed on all of them from mom and dad,” she says. “And then you come here and … we set the expectations high and then we help get them to meet them. We help them be successful with it.”

Staff members note that the self-assurance students gain from being successful is noticeable.

“When they came on campus for the first time, most of them were hiding behind their shoulder and hair and their head was down,” says Susan Griffis, director of marketing for the college. “Now they’re confident young men and women walking around the hallways… It’s just unreal.”

Of course, academics are a key element of any college experience, and they’re something that gets a lot of attention at Shepherds. During the first year, classroom instruction focuses on general academic classes like math and language arts, as well as life skills classes like money and computers. A popular class is personal development, where students learn everything from how to make friends to how to dress professionally. Students also receive training in the Bible, since the school is Christian (religious affiliation is not required for admission).

In the second year, the focus turns toward vocational training, where students select either horticulture or culinary arts and take hands-on classes in their chosen area. This training prepares them for the third year, which is primarily taken up by an internship assignment in their field.

One recent graduate, Gloria Pavuk, had an internship at Country Rose Bakery and Café in Union Grove, where she did everything from baking treats in the kitchen to cleaning up after diners. Her supervisor, Rose Laketa, was so pleased with Gloria’s work and rapport with customers that she hired her as an employee after graduation, and eventually increased her hours.

“(These students) can be productive in society, and I love it,” Laketa says. “We’re not all doing favors for them…. Why treat them any different?”

Other students have received equal praise in their assignments, which range from serving food at an elementary school’s cafeteria to operating machinery at a local farm. Leslie Leith, the lead horticulture instructor who oversees the internships, says her students excel in their evaluations by supervisors.

Tess Spahr worked at a greenhouse during high school and immediately knew that she wanted to be part of the horticulture program. But since coming to Shepherds, she decided she wants to get into flower arranging.

“She says she wants to own her own flower shop,” her mom says. “Who knows?”

These lofty aspirations are right in line with the school’s vision.

“We want to challenge them to dream big,” Terrill says. “We really try to expect a lot out of them and push them to get to accomplish all that.”

Shepherds College had its first graduating class last June.

“(These students) have a lot of ability beyond their disability. After time, you have to stop being surprised at how able they are,” Griffis says. “People live up to expectations.”

As for Tess, her mom wrote in a recent email, “Shepherds College has been such an amazing gift for her. … She can learn at her own level and pace … and is getting straight A’s. We are very proud of her.”

Elizabeth Diffin is the assistant editor at Chicago Parent.

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