I/DD students find career, academic support with Excel

Participants in the Excel program pose after a game of indoor soccer. The program offers social, academic and career support for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. // Photo courtesy of Excel

With its many schools, programs and organizations, Tech has much to offer its students, including a unique college experience for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) through the Expanding Career, Education and Leadership (Excel) program.

“Excel’s vision is a world where people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are an integral and valued part of higher education, the workforce and society,” said Ken Surdin, current director of the Excel program.

Tech’s Excel program is one of only 26 inclusive post-secondary education (IPSE) four-year programs in the nation that offers financial aid, on-campus housing, inclusive courses and internship opportunities. 

As such, it serves an important role to help I/DD students experience independence and prepare for the workplace.

“Excel at Georgia Tech provides an innovative, inclusive college experience for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, awards professional education certificates and prepares students for employment and fulfilling lives,” Surdin said.

Students in the Excel program have the opportunity to earn two different distinctions: a certificate in Academic Enrichment, Social Fluency and Career Exploration and a certificate in Social Growth, Leadership and Career Development. 

To support these certificates, Excel program activities focus on areas of academics, social growth, independent living and career development.

“The Excel program embraces the principles of access to all opportunities in society and provides a structured and supportive postsecondary educational opportunity and addresses the full scope of the needs of this population from fundamental academics to social activities and vocational training,” Surdin said.

Martha Haythorn is a current student in the Excel program. 

“I love the students and staff and how we are able to learn no matter how different it is,” Haythorn said. “We grow and learn and get education that is really important and valuable.”

Haythorn has enjoyed many aspects from her time with the Excel program so far. 

“I loved when we got to do a tailgate last semester. I love the summer academy and meeting new students, learning in classes … living on campus, being in clubs,” Haythorn said. “I love the mentor program and working out at the CRC, having access to a meal plan and having internships.”  

The program was launched in 2014 by Terry Blum and Cyrus Aidun who both have personal connections to individuals with I/DD. Blum is a current professor, the former Dean of the Scheller College of Business and a mother to a daughter with a developmental disability. Aidun is a professor in the School of Mechanical Engineering and a father to a son with an intellectual disability.

Since its creation, the Excel program has provided tremendous benefits for I/DD students.  

“89% of Excel graduates are currently employed,” Surdin said. “This means not only are alumni getting jobs upon graduation, more importantly, they are maintaining jobs.”

Surdin also believes the positive impacts of the Excel program exist not just for participating students, but also for campus as a whole.

“Everyone at Georgia Tech benefits when they are more aware and educated about intellectual and developmental disabilities. Greater awareness can lead to enhanced technology innovations to further support independence and life quality among people with a range of abilities and cognitive difficulties across the life course,” Surdin said. 

“Beneficiaries also include traditional students who act as mentors and friends, and employers who hire graduates of Excel, thereby enhancing their own diversity and performance goals,” Surdin said. “The final beneficiary is the larger community that does not have to absorb the costs of undervaluing and excluding those with developmental disabilities.”

Working to improve opportunities for I/DD students and interactions between traditional and Excel students are aspects Surdin likes most about his role as director of the Excel program.

“I enjoy being a small part of student success and knowing that Excel’s presence on campus augments Georgia Tech’s capacity to become an inclusive comprehensive learning environment where disability is included in diversity and inclusion programs,” Surdin said. “I believe it’s inspiring to both Excel students and degree-seeking students to form communities that empower people with disabilities to lead more fulfilling, independent lives.”

The Excel Mentor Program (EMP) offers a chance for degree-seeking undergraduate students and Excel students to interact and work together towards goals relating to social skills, leadership development and independent living skills.

“Mentors empower students to navigate campus resources and explore Georgia Tech’s social environment, whether it is joining a campus organization, attending an event or developing meaningful friendships with other students,” Surdin said. “Mentors also serve as resources for navigating the greater Atlanta area.”

Emily Bell, third-year IE, joined the EMP her freshman year to give back to Tech and be able to work towards her passion of helping individuals with intellectual disabilities.

“As a [EMP] coach, I assist my student with managing their scheduling, pursuing involvements around campus and navigating social situations,” said Bell. “What I enjoy most about this position is the opportunity to truly develop a relationship with my student.”

Similar to Bell, Lane Vacala, third-year BIO, has enjoyed the connections she has been able to make through her work with the Excel program.

“It has been such a unique and rewarding way to give back to the Georgia Tech community,” said Vacala. 

“My favorite part has been getting to know my student and fostering that friendship. He is the kindest person you’ll ever meet. He teaches me how to be a better person. I just hope I’ve been able to do the same for him.”

Some mentors, like Vacala, seek out the Excel program due to their passion for working with individuals who are neurodiverse while others, like Hanna Shaw, third-year BA, were encouraged by their peers to apply.

“I say this often and don’t mean it lightly, but joining the EMP has been one of the most rewarding choices I’ve made in my college career,” said Shaw.

Shaw is currently a mentor to Franklin, a senior student in the Excel program.

“Having the opportunity to mentor such amazing people like Franklin has taught me lessons that I’ll keep with me forever,” Shaw said. 

“Whether it’s walking around IKEA, getting dinner at [West Village] or playing kickball on Tech Green, the community Excel has built is unparalleled to any experience I’ve found on Tech’s campus so far.”

To learn more about the Excel program, visit excel.gatech.edu. Students who are interested in becoming involved with the EMP can apply on the Excel program website until May 15.