In room 203 in White Hall, Jack Hemmelgarn sat near the door and away from the other students. He works on his homework for a math class, scratch paper to the side and a look of concentration on his face.
Hemmelgarn never thought he would achieve his dream of attending college.
As a 22-year-old sophomore at Kent State, he hopes to gain the knowledge and experience to one day work in a steel mill or oil refinery.
“I just wanted (a) college experience,” Hemmelgarn said. “I wanted to prove I’m good at college.”
Hemmelgarn is one of 16 students enrolled in Kent State’s Career and Community Studies program, a non-degree option for students with intellectual disabilities to learn about different career options while still getting the college experience.
“I get to learn and research about the career I want,” Hemmelgarn said. “Through this program you can find people who help you.”
Program coordinator Yvonne Hale has been involved since the program received grant money in 2011 to give students with a disability the experience to learn to live independently.
The program requires completion of a high school program and to be identified as an individual with an intellectual or developmental disability, traumatic brain injury or autism between the ages of 18-26, Hale said, and it’s designed for students who can’t enter college the traditional way.
“One of the core values at Kent State is to provide learning environments for diversity,” Hale said. “So when the opportunity came, we said let’s try and build it together.”
On the other side of room 203 is Josie Crener. Laughing and smiling, she is fully engaged with the students around her. The freshman mingles with mentors and other students in the program.
“I wanted to be able to get the same educational experience as everyone else while learning how to get into teaching,” Crener said. “I really enjoy working with kids.”
With the goal of eventually becoming a teacher’s aide, Crener said her favorite part of the college experience is living on her own in Manchester Hall with another Career and Community Studies student, Emily Prior.
“You don’t have to worry about the dishes,” Crener said, laughing. “You can do whatever you want.”
Nearing the end of her freshman year, Crener said she looks forward to furthering her education, attending college parties and taking active classes like P.E. and volleyball — something she wouldn’t experience if she wasn’t a part of this program.
Hale said Kent’s program is one of 27 nationwide, but it is the only program to provide inclusive housing to students.
“We make sure to integrate students in the dorms,” Hale said. “At other colleges they have them in separate housing, but here at Kent we have them in the same halls as traditional students.”
Prior, also a freshman, said her favorite part of the program is having a social life and knowing others in the dorms.
“I wanted to have the experience to live independently and have my own life,” Prior said. “I love exploring all of the new things around campus.”
Alongside these students are 15 mentors who help them integrate into the college environment.
Julie Appel, junior speech pathology major, is an Independent Living mentor. Responsible for conducting weekly meetings and planning activities with the students, Appel said her job is to help teach them how to be independent and acclimate to life a college student.
“We did curfew checks every night, then did it less and less until they were able to manage their time and get to bed,” Appel said. “I consider myself a friend that they could come to if they needed, but also their mentor who they respect and listen to.”
Appel said the students talk to other people in the dorm and invite them to come to their activities.
“We have gone to the various dining halls and restaurants on Main Street,” Appel said. “We have done bowling, karaoke and gone to club meetings and events. Really, anything to get them out and socializing.”
Appel added that her mentoring experience has not only helped other students, but also herself.
“It taught me different ways to communicate with people,” she said. “I’ve become more independent myself.”
Each mentor must go through two full days of training to help them work in unison with other mentors and the students while focusing on their philosophy of self-determination, Hale said.
“The goal is to help mentors become better teachers,” she said. “We want them to essentially work themselves out of a job, meaning the students become more and more independent and we need less help over time.”
Nicolette Dimora, a sophomore majoring in special education, has been a mentor for a year.
“It is a great way for me to get hands-on experience,” Dimora said. “It has given me the most experience out of all my class procedures.”
She said she thinks Kent’s program stands out by allowing students to mentor other students.
“It has really taught me how to encourage students to be independent,” Dimora said. “I love working with the students; they’re a fun group.”
Looking around the room in White Hall, the students and mentors are completely integrated, unidentifiable from one another.
Crener and Dimora share conversation and laughs. Even outside of the classroom, the mentors and students hang out together, Crener said.
In the classroom, the program provides the students access to a wide array of courses that integrate them with traditional students in different majors, Hale said.
“Many other colleges set identified courses for these students. We don’t have that,” Hale said. “Instead we say ‘tell us what you want to do and we will find courses here that will help you advance your knowledge and skills.’”
Hale said that giving these students options of different courses that fit their interests prevents them from getting into the fields of what she calls the four F’s: food, filth, flower and factory jobs.
“Only about 14-20 percent of students (with these disabilities) work after graduating high school and most of those students that fall into the four F’s are underemployed and underpaid,” Hale said. “This program helps get them out of that box.”
Hale said their goal is to reach a total of 45 students in the program at once by 2019.
She said her favorite part about being involved in this program is hearing what it means for the students to have this opportunity.
“I hear them talking about what it means to them to have this opportunity,” Hale said, smiling. “They can be themselves here and learn how to take ownership and be able to make decisions for themselves.”
Hale adds she believes this program is helping change the way society views these students
“They’re now viewing them as productive, contributing members to society that have value,” Hale said. “That’s pretty amazing to be a part of.”
Hannah Wagner is the Education, Health and Human Services reporter, contact her at [email protected]