A Most Special Commencement
These determined students
taught the professors
about life’s challenges.
And not being defined by them.
©2011 Robin Nelson All Rights Reserved
It was a commencement like hundreds across the nation on a warm May Tuesday morning. A few thousand capped and gowned college students, fresh-faced and eager to move on the next chapter in their lives, walked into the arena to the familiar “Pomp and Circumstance” by the brass ensemble.
A blend of perfumes, after-shave lotions and bouquets from hundreds of flowers filled the muggy, southern air.
The day would be consumed with relatives, hugs, kisses, snapshots, goodbyes and countless open houses. Coming weeks would bring job searches, resumes and– hopefully – interviews. The scene could have been from anywhere in middle America.
But there was something very different on this day, in this graduation ceremony.
Two students who had graced the campus for the last two years as part of Kennesaw State University’s pilot Academy for Inclusive Learning were asked to stand for special recognition. They held leather-clad certificates in their hands that looked much like the other students’ diplomas. They stood proudly as the university president shared a bit about who they were and what they had accomplished. Applause, full and authentic, filled the hall. Kelsey Bizzell and Christopher Hunnicutt weren’t the valedictorian and salutatorian. They were special in a much larger sense. And they were pioneers.
Tears welled up in Christopher Hunnicutt’s eyes as the gowned president spoke. His classmate Kelsey stood in awe as the two were affirmed and encouraged. It was a dream that had finally come true. And the spotlight was on them for helping to break new ground in higher education.
The arena was filled with proud parents, but there were two sets of parents who beamed even brighter than the rest.
Christopher and Kelsey have developmental disabilities. In other communities, opportunities for a college experience would have likely remained an unfulfilled dream for students with Downs syndrome or similar challenges. But at KSU’s College of Health and Human Services, a handful of students who otherwise would not have been admitted to college had the opportunity to attend lecture classes, hang out with fellow students, study in the library and do pretty much what college students do for four semesters, modified, of course, to their abilities.
“We started with three students for the first year,” explains Jill Sloan, who administers the two-year program. “The second year we added six more. Hopefully we can add more every year as we get funds and staff.” A former special education teacher in the public schools, Jill’s heart glows with pride at how her students adapted to campus life. She is determined and optimistic that the program she has shaped will be replicated in several other Georgia universities. And maybe beyond.
“Mom, I’m really a college graduate now,” Kelsey gushed later to her mother Kimberly as she held out a yellow “KSU Alumni” T-shirt from a table where the bookstore had set up shop. “Yes, you are,” Kimberly said. “Yes, you are.”
“These students would have had little opportunity for anything like this five years ago. Once their secondary education time was up, usually by age 22, that would have been the end of it,” explained Ms. Sloan. The project now has the university’s full support.
Christopher and Kelsey dearly wanted to be just typical students. (See the earlier post from 2010) Closely supervised and mentored by both staff and student volunteers, their classes and activities gave them significantly more maturity and confidence to deal with a world that typically doesn’t understand what it means to have a developmental disability. It is a world that is sometimes rude and unkind.
While not a true college diploma, the program gives these students a larger perspective than those of their peers who only had the sheltered special education offered in high school. College changes people, even if the certificate isn’t exactly a college diploma.
“Whatever Chris and Kelsey learned in their two years on campus, I think the professors and the thousands of regular students who got to know them learned even more. Those two taught everyone they met not to be afraid of someone with a disability just because they might be a little different,” said one of Christopher’s classmates. “I think Chris and Kelsey broke down a lot of barriers. They might have come to have the college experience, but they ended up teaching the rest of us. They should be very proud of what they’ve accomplished.”