Featured VISTA Blog: Expanding Expectations for Students with Developmental Disabilities in Higher Education
By Madeline Delaney
VHEC’s AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program, which falls under Vermont Campus Compact, focuses on improving college access and success for first generation, low-income, and underrepresented students in Vermont. VHEC currently has 8 VISTA members serving in a variety of offices at 6 different campuses around Vermont. This is the sixth post in a series that highlights individual VISTAs and the increasingly important service they are doing. This post highlights and was written by Madeline (who goes by Maddie) Delaney, who just completed her year of service with Think College at the University of Vermont. She was one of two AmeriCorps VISTAs that served at the University of Vermont in 2016-17. Maddie is from Ferrisburgh, Vermont and is a graduate of the University of Vermont.
“I now have the confidence to succeed in the outside world. At the beginning of the program, I didn’t know much about who I was or where I wanted to go—I just wanted to go to college. Now, I have a purpose; I know what I want to achieve in life.”
-Nicole, Think College Graduate
As the AmeriCorps VISTA at Think College Vermont @ UVM, I have the privilege of supporting students like Nicole in their path through higher education. For many young people with developmental disabilities, the future after high school is limited—it was once described to me as “being on the edge of a cliff with no bridge in sight.” Even in our community, young adults with developmental disabilities face high unemployment rates and an increased likelihood to live in poverty. Think College at the University of Vermont strives to build a new bridge, one where young adults with developmental disabilities have the opportunity to find their own potential and access the support they need to reach those goals.
Think College is an innovative academic, social, and vocational transition program for students with developmental disabilities seeking a college experience and career path. Our program at UVM was launched in 2010 as part of the National Think College Organization, dedicated to establishing and improving higher education options for people with developmental disabilities. Think College at UVM incorporates student-centered planning, academic advising and peer mentor support for an inclusive college experience. Participants earn a 12 credit Certificate of College Studies, designed to include academic enrichment, social and recreational activities, independent living and self-advocacy skills, and career exploration. Think College promotes an inclusive environment in UVM classrooms and on campus, where our students can build the skills and confidence to pursue a successful career and a fulfilling future.
The heart of Think College is our peer mentor program. I first became involved in Think College as a peer mentor, when I was a student at UVM in 2011. For three years I supported students with developmental disabilities in their academics and social activities on campus, and shared the experience of gaining independence as a young adult. My time as an undergrad with the program dramatically shaped my career path, as it does for many of our peer mentors after graduation.
This past year I was excited to return to Think College as an AmeriCorps VISTA. I wanted to continue to support our students and mentors in their journey through higher education. I wanted to expand the program’s capacity and build on the diversity of our mission. In these ways I succeeded during my year of service.
One highlight of my service was organizing our Benefit Bake fundraiser through American Flatbread. American Flatbread regularly hosts Benefit Bake nights, where they generously donate a portion of their pizza proceeds to a community non-profit. For the event, I also organized a raffle with prizes donated by local businesses. Overall we brought in $700, all of which has gone into funding program expenses. It was amazing to see our students and mentors come out for the night, bringing their friends and families to share in the fun and support the program. We also raised community awareness of the program and established an ongoing connection with American Flatbread. Fundraisers such as this would not be possible without AmeriCorps VISTA. Think College runs on a small, busy staff. The AmeriCorps VISTA member has the ability to step out of the day-to-day management of the program and lead these important outreach and awareness efforts in the community. As the VISTA, I have been able to spearhead the promotion of our High School Transition program and ignite collaborations with UVM clubs and departments. I have worked with professors to promote inclusion in UVM classrooms, and with students to celebrate diversity on campus.
In my year of service, I have realized the role of the VISTA is larger than any one goal I had originally set. It is larger than any one fundraiser or initiative. I realize that I have been able to contribute to a movement that is taking place in our country, the movement to change the expectations of students with developmental disabilities in higher education. In a culture that once held individuals with developmental disabilities back, we are now opening doors to higher education, and setting an inclusive standard of opportunity. In my conversations with families and with community partners, I finally understand this movement, and the crucial role that both Think College and AmeriCorps VISTA play in it. Through the VISTA’s effort of promoting programs like Think College, families can now have the expectation, from a young age, that their child will go to college and find a meaningful career. As the AmeriCorps VISTA at Think College, I have had the privilege of seeing our students exceed their own expectations, proving that young adults with developmental disabilities have a place in higher education.