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SC college programs provide a path to independent living for students with disabilities

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SC college programs provide a path to independent living for students with disabilities

Jun 04, 2024 | 1:32 pm ET
By Jessica Holdman
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SC college programs provide a path to independent living for those with disabilities
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Alex Eveland dreams of working for a hotel or restaurant once he completes the ClemsonLIFE hospitality certificate program at Clemson University. He is one of hundreds of students to have enrolled in one of South Carolina’s six college programs for mild to moderate developmentally disabled students. (Provided by the Eveland family)

CLEMSON — Alex Eveland dreams of working for a hotel or restaurant — preferably one that serves Mexican food — once he completes the ClemsonLIFE hospitality certificate program at Clemson University.

Maybe he’ll even open his own coffee shop one day.

Before ClemsonLIFE (Learning Is For Everyone), a college experience hadn’t been in the plans for Eveland, who was born with a rare chromosome deletion that has left him with an intellectual disability. He’s since graduated from the first part of the program and is now enrolled in the intensive two-year hospitality section.

“I get emotional thinking about it because, when we got the diagnosis 23 years ago … college wasn’t on the radar,” said Eveland’s mother, Kristen Eveland.

After researching opportunities, the Evelands, who are from Guilford, Connecticut, attended an open house event at the Upstate school.

“It was exactly what my husband and I dreamed about — a real college experience where Alex could live on campus,” Kristen Eveland said. “It’s given him the ability to be independent, to be a part of a community, to dabble in different types of work and to figure out what he wants to do.”

SC college programs provide a path to independent living for students with disabilities
The Eveland family, left to right Johan, Alex and Kristen Eveland, at Alex’s ClemsonLIFE graduation. (Provided by the Eveland family)

Alex Eveland is one of hundreds of students who have enrolled in one of South Carolina’s six college programs for mild to moderate developmentally disabled students. In addition to Clemson, the University of South Carolina, College of Charleston, Coastal Carolina University, Winthrop University and USC Aiken offer what’s called College Transition Programs.

South Carolina is a national leader in this area, with some of the longest-standing programs in the country, according to those working in the field.

The largest, at Clemson, is now up to 53 students for this coming fall. The newest program, at USC Aiken, enrolled its first class last fall.

The programs range from two to four years, and while students graduate with a certificate rather than a degree, it gives them that same formative time between graduating high school and entering the workforce that many college-bound 18-year-olds use to decide what career they want to pursue. Along the way, they pick up the skills they’ll need to support themselves as adults.

For residents, the state offers up to $20,000 in scholarships and need-based grants to help students cover the cost, which is of particular importance to families who did not save for college because they didn’t think it would ever be a possibility for their child.

It all started 15 years ago with USC. Congress had recently passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act, opening up federal funding for such programs and Pell Grants for students in need of financial aid.

Donald Bailey, a former member of the USC Board of Trustees, started a non-profit, College Transition Connection, to push South Carolina colleges to implement the programs and lobby for state scholarship dollars. Bailey was driven in his cause by his son, Donald Bailey Jr., who was autistic and would become one of the first students to enroll in CarolinaLIFE.

The state budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 could designate up to $3.6 million for College Transition Program scholarships, the amount recommended by Gov. Henry McMaster. The exact amount is still under negotiations between House and Senate budget writers.

What LIFE is like

Move-in day for CarolinaLIFE students is filled with the usual combination of excitement and nerves experienced by all college freshman and their families. The students can choose to live in on-campus housing with another LIFE student or as part of the general assigned roommate pool.

“They hit the ground running like all USC students and so that adjustment — while it’s scary and overwhelming like it is for all college freshmen — they get to experience those normal feelings,” said Erica Milliron, the program’s director.

Staff provide some extra support, showing them around campus and the student activities fair where they can enroll in various clubs. LIFE students have chosen to pledge with sororities, join the fencing and cross country clubs, or take part in clubs for anime and crochet. One current student is serving as a university ambassador, a highly competitive and sought-after role giving guided tours and visiting with prospective students.

“We try not to overstep because we want students to be able to experience that going-to-college feeling that they’ve been so looking forward to for so long,” Milliron said. “Often, our students have come out of high school settings where they’ve been kind of protected or sheltered or isolated. Our students have a choice.”

Curriculum includes a freshman seminar course to help with that adjustment to college, figuring out what it’s like being a student in college versus in high school. The program also involves academic support classes, LIFE specific classes on topics such as relationships and making friends on a large university campus, an employment course taken every semester, and a couple traditional university courses of their choosing that fit the students’ interests, taken on a pass/fail basis.

In addition, LIFE students are required to hold down jobs. Their second semester starts with 10 hours of job shadowing at Columbia area businesses. Sophomores then work five to 10 hours a week, juniors 10 to 15 hours and seniors 15 to 20 hours a week on top of their classes.

Junior and senior years also come with exit planning classes, preparing for what life’s going to be like upon graduation.

“We have to start thinking about where they want to live, what it’s going to look like, how they’re going to pay for it where they want to work,” Milliron said.

Students have gone on to jobs at Still Hopes, a retirement community in West Columbia; child care and peer education in schools. A current student even has plans for a job in underwater archaeology, having earned his scuba certification and taken numerous anthropology classes at USC.

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As a former K-12 special education teacher in Pennsylvania, Milliron, the program’s director, sees the options CarolinaLIFE can give to students like those she used to work with before coming to South Carolina.

So does Brian Keys, who also taught special education in Pennsylvania before moving to Conway to become assistant director of Coastal Carolina’s LIFE program.

An independent LIFE

At Coastal, LIFE freshmen live three to a dorm room, along with a fourth student trained to offer extra support as needed. Students in their sophomore through senior years live in campus apartments, where they have a kitchen and a washer and dryer.

“I find that the residential component really gives them … independent living skills,” Keys said. “We feel that such an important part of the program is having that experience and being on your own or with friends, but not necessarily with mom and dad doing everything for you.”

Much like USC, students at Coastal are enrolled in career and employment classes, as well as college courses of their choosing. Seniors hold an internship, working 30 hours a week at Conway Medical Center or Doubletree Resorts. There are independent living classes each semester, tackling topics like budgeting. There’s also extra cooking and kitchen and food safety courses, as well as the requirement to participate in a physical activity course.

Finally, the school is adding a course for LIFE freshman to help them gain more computer skills, such as creating a PowerPoint presentation or sending an email, which they’ll need to do to complete their traditional university courses.

“They may not be able to do everything, but many of our students, we’re seeing more and more each year where they are able to live independently. They’re able to hold down jobs and keep those jobs for years to come,” Keys said.

Coastal LIFE graduates are employed in a variety of fields: Landscaping; heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC); food service; hotels; warehouse work; and data entry for information technology jobs.

Similarly, after completing the REACH (Reaching Educational And Career Hopes) program at College of Charleston, students have gone on to be hotel assistant managers and nursing assistants.

REACH students, like all College of Charleston freshmen, start their college career enrolling in a “learning community” — a pair of classes with a theme or common topic. Then, they pick from a second set of learning communities, tailored to REACH students, that include some of the typical core classes freshmen take, said Nora Krasowski, the program’s associate director for admissions and enrollment. After that, they’ll work toward an area of concentration, taking classes related to their chosen career path.

REACH students live together on campus their freshman year. They learn independent living skills, such as how to navigate Charleston’s public bus system, with help from trained coordinators along the way rather than taking special classes.

The students start out working jobs on campus, allowing the school to gauge their work experience. After that, a career coordinator finds paid, off-campus jobs for each student. They then graduate with a portfolio of skills and work experience that they can use when applying for jobs wherever they choose to live.

‘Exactly where he belongs’

At Clemson, Alex Eveland has soaked up each experience the college has to offer, including serving as a student manager of the men’s basketball team.

In addition to classes and basketball, he worked his way through the job rotations required of ClemsonLIFE freshmen as they decide what they would like to do. The school has 42 business partners throughout the community and on campus, spanning hotels, food service, office work and retail, according to program coordinator Erica Walters.

Eveland found his fit at the Shepherd Hotel, another program born out of a parent’s desire to help their special needs child achieve an independent life. Rick Hayduk built the 67-room hotel with his daughter, Jamison Hayduk, who has Down Syndrome, in mind. The hotel and its restaurant can employ up to 30 of ClemsonLIFE’s students.

Eveland started in the hotel laundry, but as a people-person, the restaurant is where he shined.

“The restaurant is exactly where he belongs,” Kristen Eveland said, noting he talks to everyone who walks through the door

“I love to tell people disabled people could work,” said Alex Eveland, adding that he has many return customers who love to come back to visit with him and the other ClemsonLIFE students working there.

His mom said this independent life is all she and her husband ever wanted for Alex, though she’ll miss him: He wants to stay in Clemson to live rather than returning to Connecticut.

Walters said that’s common with ClemsonLIFE students. The program has 40 alumni living in the town.

It also speaks to the popularity and need for the program. This year, she had more than 100 applicants. She only had enough space to accept 13.