The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Above and beyond

Beyond Academics has helped shape the lives of more than just the students in the program. As a sophomore, Steffanie Lewis '10 found a job opening for a Beyond Academics CCS staff — one of those students who provide one-on-one support for BA students on campus and in the community.

She didn't know anything about working with people with disabilities, but she decided to give it a try.

She stayed with the BA program while she completed her major in Human Development and Family Studies. Now she's an associate instructor with the program.

“It's definitely my passion,” she says. “I want to keep with it.”

Each student has different goals. Her job includes everything from helping them buy groceries to going to the bank to sitting in on UNCG classes.

“I enjoy seeing the students' growth," Steffanie says. “It improves your outlook on life to help them have a different quality of life, to support them to reach individual goals."

And every day is different. What works for one student doesn't necessarily work for another. She loves that challenge.

She works with both Jeff and Demario. At this point Demario needs little help. Jeff, she says, has become more independent. “I let him do as much as he can. If I need to, I step in.”

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Monday mornings follow a regular routine for Jeff and Steffanie. She arrives at his apartment first thing in the morning to get him ready for the week. Step one — cleaning his room. They make a good team, picking up clothes, emptying trash.

Jeff periodically stops to comment on songs on the radio. He announces he is listening to Christmas music to help him focus.

“Jeff, get your sheets out of the dryer,” Steffanie gently reminds him.

They make the bed together, although Jeff does most of it. Steffanie comes behind when the fitted sheet isn't quite right. “Wait — is this part on?" She points to one corner.

He jots down his grocery list on a sheet with marked categories. “Remember, you don't need too much,” she says. On Wednesday, like most students on campus, he'll be headed home on fall break.

They do the dishes. While they wash, Jeff chats about going to last night's basketball game with his best friend, Ethan.

Next stop: Harris Teeter at Friendly Center.

At the store, Jeff glances at his list and grabs a large container of raspberries. Other healthy choices follow: strawberries, salad greens, vitamin water (several flavors), organic yogurt.

He moves through the store quickly. Craisins. Black olives. Roast beef. He pauses when picking up a bottle of Italian salad dressing and carefully reads the label. “I'm allergic to nuts,” he explains.

When he picks up a box of Special K bars, he grabs another. “That's a good deal,” he says, pointing to the price.

In the freezer section, the frozen entrees pose a different kind of problem — high sodium. He looks at the labels before making a choice.

“His mom would like for him to cook, but he's so busy at night,” Steffanie says.

When he does cook, one of his specialties is pasta. A jar of spaghetti sauce goes into the cart.

Rounding the corner, he comes to the magazines and newspapers. He parks the cart and walks off to find his beloved Sunday News & Record.

At the checkout line, he smoothly walks to the end and begins bagging his items. He's in and out of the store within half an hour.

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Talk with administrators and there's a fair amount of concern about money. A college education doesn't come cheaply, and when you use small, specialized programs along with the layers of support staff from the CCSs to peer mentors, it adds up.

Beyond Academics is a private nonprofit, which is unique compared to similar programs across the nation. And it's gotten the attention of several funding agencies, which have helped with the start up, operations and ongoing evaluation of the program. Funding remains a challenge but BA and UNCG have managed to pull together different funding streams to make it work. Some current state partners include the N.C. Division of Mental Health/Developmental Disabilities/Substance Abuse Services, the N.C. Division of Medical Assistance and the N.C. Council on Developmental Disabilities.

For now, 30 students are enrolled in the Integrative Community Studies certificate program.

Once it's determined that a student is eligible for the BA program, then the difficult task of talking about money comes up. Many look to Medicaid waiver funding for those with developmental disabilities (CAP-DD). That program provides support for skills development so that that people with developmental disabilities can live the lives they want to live and avoid institutionalization. But there are huge waiting lists.

UNCG has a list of potential students from across North Carolina and seven states, who are all eager for what Beyond Academics has to offer.

“We have students coming out of high school now who would be appropriate but their families didn't prepare financially for college,” Joan says. “That's one of the most gut-wrenching things on a personal level to witness. There is the joy of knowing there's an option but the realization of the financial challenge ahead. They say, ‘My goodness, if I had known (college could be an option), I would have made plans to save in this direction.’”

In 2008, Congress amended the Higher Education Opportunity Act to allow the development of post-secondary education programs for students with intellectual disabilities. Once a program is approved through the U.S. Department of Education, educational institutions can receive financial aid for these students. UNCG should begin the approval process this semester. For now, families are dependent on savings accounts and Medicaid. Joan is hopeful some people will establish scholarships. Already a booster group, Friends of Beyond Academics, has picked up the fundraising banner.

In the long run, Beyond Academics saves money for cash-strapped public agencies. When BA students begin their journey, they need about $50,000 in Medicaid assistance, says Dr. Terri Shelton, vice chancellor for research and economic development. When they leave, they only need about $15,000 in assistance.

“And it isn't so much about the money,” Terri says. “It's what that represents.”

Independence. Fulfillment. A chance at something better.

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Terri and Joan have given presentations at national conferences on the UNCG model, and it's garnering attention.

“Interest is growing,” Joan says. “Things are afoot nationally.”

Similar programs have popped up in South Carolina, Iowa, Florida, New Jersey. However, BA is one of a small number of public-private partnerships using Medicaid waivers.

“Our model is fairly unique,” Joan says. “The partnership of a nonprofit with a state university to provide an experience with equal emphasis on academics and the application to daily lives is pioneering territory.

“I'm just so proud of UNCG for all they've done,” Joan says. “It's incredible. They are embracing it more and more and more each year.”

Each semester brings something different. Just this past summer BA students received student IDs, which allow them to use the rec center and attend basketball games.

Additionally, this year the program got another big boost — it received accreditation. Beyond Academics is the first program of this type to be awarded that kind of designation from the Council on Quality Leadership.

Administrators are backing up the model with research. They are tracking students' progress in growth and functionality, friendships and a host of other areas as they make their way through this pilot program.

They want to know how BA students are doing in the community and on campus. They want to know what hasn't worked so well and how to change it.

“The outcomes will be key,” Joan says. They hope as the years progress they will have a model that others will want to replicate. A model that will give more students like Demario and Jeff the same opportunities.

Already, it's looking quite promising. In addition to Demario, four others will graduate in May. Two of those students are hoping to be entrepreneurs. One creates doggie treats. Another loves catering and interned at Spring Garden Bakery.

“We want them to leave with a job or meaningful activity,” Joan says. “Not all college students leave with a job. Some do community activism type of work like AmeriCorps. We expect our students to mirror that exactly.”

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It seems somehow appropriate that this is the year the first group of Beyond Academics students will don cap and gown and graduate with hundreds of their peers.

Ask Demario how he feels about graduation and his short answer is typical of lots of college students: “It's scary.”

But plenty of others have enough excitement for him.

“It's going to be a good day, a satisfying day,” Eric says. “Definitely emotional, for sure.”

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In the beginning, no one was quite sure how it was going to work. If it was going to work. Students with intellectual disabilities going to college.

Joan, who majored in communication sciences and disorders when she was a student at UNCG, sips her coffee and reflects on coming out of retirement to serve as executive director of Beyond Academics.

“I spent my whole career in developmental disabilities,” she says, “and this is the best thing I've been involved in. It's just an incredible experience to see these students regain hope, talk about a bright future and live it.”

She considers working with Beyond Academics a social justice issue.

“It shows people are people, not defined by disability,” Joan says. “When the disability label is applied, it becomes a label of less than.”

And those who have come on board to join with her have her respect. Fifteen staff members and 40 students work with the BA students daily.

“We tend to draw those people who do their part to help the human condition. The staff — those are the heroes,” she says. “They're the ones who get called at 4 a.m. They're there to support those students.”

Those students are getting something they've never had before — a chance at being active and involved in the community. On their own terms.

“It's a wise business decision, but what I really care about is the human element,” Joan says. “Every single human being is worth the investment. Everyone wants this to succeed.”

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Last updated: Tuesday, 04 October 2011
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