Preparation for contribution in the community

By Michele Westmaas

The College for Life program at an Illinois college provides students with disabilities an opportunity to gain skills for life.

John Wood Community College’s College for Life gives students 18 years and older with developmental and learning disabilities the opportunity to go to college. College for Life students have developmental disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome and other challenges that make success in regular college courses seem unlikely.

College for Life’s mission is to help students with developmental and intellectual disabilities gain skills, knowledge and confidence for increased contribution to our greater community as active citizens, coworkers, friends and neighbors.

What if your son or daughter completed high school and literally had no path ahead for the next step in life? No college, no job and no structured way to continue learning or socializing with others outside of family and friends. That’s what many students with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families face every day. In Illinois, approximately 20,000 people are on a waiting list for state developmental disabilities services. That means students leave high school to, literally, nothing. Some parents have quit their jobs to be home with their adult children. Most parents are desperate to find a way to continue the growth and progress their children had experienced throughout the school years. Now, students and parents in the John Wood Community College region can dream of and plan for a future they didn’t think existed before.

Right now, two days a week on the Quincy, Illinois, campus of John Wood Community College, students with such disabilities can take non-credit courses, engage in one-to-one and small group academic tutoring, and consider regular developmental or credit-bearing courses. College for Life students have a JWCC student ID and enjoy access to the campus community, activities and resources.

The three-year College for Life certificate program offers the opportunity to graduate with a certificate that the community will come to value in job-seekers. The certificate program includes core courses such as self-advocacy, positive communication, healthy relationships, personal finance, and getting ready to work. Elective requirements can be met through non-credit, developmental, audited or credit-bearing courses as well as tutoring or on-campus volunteer experiences. The first College for Life graduation ceremony will take place in spring 2020.

The initial 12 students participating in the program’s first year, 2017-2018, showed growth in their communication skills, soft skills for work, decision-making, confidence and independence. The program is continually evolving as we engage more campus and community resources, building capacity to meet the needs and support the growth of these students, but also benefit from the gifts of students with developmental disabilities.

Essential to the success of the program has been support from all levels of college administration. JWCC is a welcoming campus with all departments ready and willing to incorporate College for Life students into the regular flow of campus procedures and activities. Each new program idea is met with optimism and positivity as departments work through the considerations required to bring opportunities to this group of students.

Collaboration and support from the community is another key to success. College for Life instructors come from varied community organizations such as the community theatre, hospital, chamber of commerce, YMCA and center for independent living. Civic organizations and disability parent groups are active in spreading awareness, seeking funding sources and donors, and recruiting instructors, students, and volunteers.

Through ongoing engagement with the community and capacity-building on campus, College for Life will evolve to offer students with intellectual and developmental disabilities ever-increasing opportunities to grow, learn and contribute as adult citizens of the community.

Michele Westmaas

is coordinator of College for Life at John Wood Community College in Quincy, Illinois.