EXCEL provides alternative degrees

Photo courtesy of Georgia Tech Excel

Each year, hundreds of students with mild intellectual and developmental disabilities will graduate from Georgia high schools. Their post-secondary options are limited, with few institutions offering the infrastructure necessary for their success.

Last year, Tech began its Excel initiative to offer a certificate program for such students with the goal of easing their transition from high school to the working world. The program, the second of its kind in the state, began with eight students entering into the four-year program.

This year, the number has risen to around 15 with plans to add 12 more per year.

“They stay for a full four years,” said Lindsay Doolittle, third-year CS and a peer mentor with the program. “They have classes that are specific to them, but they also take classes that are integrated with the rest of Tech.”

The first eight Excel students lived in off-campus student apartments last year, while some of the newer first-years opted to live in the traditional freshman dorms.

Students in the program work with a variety of peer mentors that help with things like academics, exercise and cooking while at the same time putting an emphasis on independent living.

“For example, there is a girl that I cook with,” Doolitle said. “I’m her cooking support, but she also has an academic support and a fitness support and an overall coach that helps oversee everything. Not everyone has all four coaches, but most do.”

The Excel-specific classes are taught by two professors along with several paid teaching assistants. These courses cover a variety of subjects, “such as reading comprehension, math and science as well as life skills like financial literacy, intra-personal communication and community engagement,” per news.gatech.edu.

Though the program itself is designed to help students transition into the working world, many students have already taken the plunge and begun working various jobs in the area.

“[One student] wants to be a parapro,” Doolitle said. “Right now she’s going through a program that’s seven to four every day, getting a certificate to be a substitute teacher. One works at Paper and Clay, and another girl even works at the Children’s Museum downtown. They have jobs on and around campus, and they’ll have jobs after school, too.”

Students have also found themselves ingrained in other parts of campus as well, from the Campus Christian Fellowship to the club wrestling team. A lot of the involvement, according to Doolittle, is philanthropy and community service around the city of Atlanta.

The Excel students are getting a full college experience, which is something that has been virtually unattainable for students with mild intellectual and developmental disabilities in the past.

Thanks to grants and donations from various groups such as SAA, the Excel program is set to continue growing until it reaches its goal of 48 students.

For the 2015–2016 school year, the Excel at Georgia Tech program received SAA’s Gift to Tech. This was a grant of over $43 thousand to be used for funding the career development capacity of Excel.

“We seek to create a culture that embraces diverse learners and employees in order to maximize inclusion on our campuses and create inclusive opportunities in our communities,” said program director Kenneth Surdin, courtesy of the GT Alumni Association.

Through their efforts, Excel has managed to do just that. Through their integrated classes and job placement program, they have fostered a kind of diversity that is rare, if not non-existent, on today’s college campuses.

As programs like Excel begin popping up at universities across the nation, Tech will be able to look back with immense pride that their program was one of the first of its kind.