Meredith Schlandt thought having a college experience would never be possible for her until she came to UT.
Through the FUTURE Postsecondary Education Program, she was able to audit nursing and public health courses and other classes of interest.
Schlandt, 21, of Clinton, Tennessee, and seven other students with intellectual disabilities and autism have completed FUTURE and will earn a postsecondary certificate. They are the program’s first graduates. They will walk across the stage during the May 8 commencement of the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences.
“It’s been an awesome experience because we were the first ones to try it,” she said, adding that the program has inspired her desire to be a certified nursing assistant.
“I like hands-on things and I want to help people and take care of them,” she said.
The FUTURE Program provides college access to East Tennessee students with intellectual disabilities who otherwise would not have the opportunity to attend a university because they don’t meet entrance requirements, including a regular high school diploma. This is a first in UT history. There are currently fifteen students in the program.
It is funded under the Transition Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities by the US Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education.
Established in 2011, the two-year nonresidential program also helps participants with job placement. It is the third such program in Tennessee, with one at Vanderbilt University and another at the University of Memphis. It is one of only 250 programs of its kind in universities across the United States.
The program pairs participants with peer mentors from the UT student body who attend classes with them, assist with note taking, and go to sporting events with them to help them acclimate to university life.
Zach Blaine, 21, of Knoxville, said being a part of the program has improved his social and work skills.
“I feel like I have more confidence,” he said.
He added that the mentors have become his friends, noting that “in high school, I didn’t have many friends.”
The program’s main goal is independence and increased career opportunities for the students, said David Cihak, one of the program’s directors. He is an associate professor of special education in the Department of Theory and Practice in Teacher Education.
“We provide opportunities for them to problem solve, take risks, and expand their skill sets needed to be employable,” he said. “It has also widened their social networks and they had opportunities to make new friends and career connections.”
For Matthew McCarter, 20, of Sevierville, Tennessee, the program has helped him learn more about tourism and hotel management through the courses he audited. He currently works in maintenance to repair cabins at a resort in Pigeon Forge.
The FUTURE Program, he said, “has helped me to do a good job.”
To learn more about the UT FUTURE Program, visit the website.
From left to right: Meredith Schlandt, Matthew McCarter, Dustin Knoernschild, Chad Mitchell, Carly Snidow, Zeni Schleter, Jacob Meadows, and Zach Blaine
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