Last fall, College of The Albemarle took a gamble on the belief that everyone should have a chance to get an education.
Shortly after college administrators learned about the Pathways to an Accessible College Experience program, or PACE, which provides a one to two-year learning experience for college-aged students with intellectual disabilities, the school decided to implement the program on its Dare campus.
One year later, school officials say the new program was a bet that paid off.
The program’s first year went so well, there are plans to eventually add it to COA’s Elizabeth City and Chowan campuses so students there can also enroll in PACE. Last August, four students made up the program’s first class. Some students had Downs Syndrome, autism or other learning disabilities, but all had one thing in common – they were capable of completing COA’s requirements for a Collegiate Achievement certificate.
Students in PACE are required to complete classes that focus on self-advocacy and job-seeking skills that prepare them for life after college. The program allows students to experience classes in a college setting and eventually transition to the workforce in jobs of their own choosing. This opportunity, said Mandy Earnest, COA’s PACE coordinator, was unheard of until about four years ago when Think College, a national organization dedicated to developing higher education options for people with intellectual disability, started the program.
“The name is what it’s all about,” said Tim Sweeney, director of basic and transitional studies at COA. “Creating a pathway to make sure our students have that college experience and develop that skill level to make sure they’re successful in the work world.”
“The academic growth, the social growth was just off the charts,” Sweeney said, referring to the development of PACE students during their first year in the program. “It was an amazing achievement by these students in all areas of education. That’s what I’m really happy about.”
Earnest said the first year of the program is focused on teaching students the soft-skills they will need in the workplace – such as training them for social and workplace situations, learning how to use a computer and completing interview classes. The second year is focused on getting PACE students placed into local internships based on their areas of interest, so they get the job training they need.
Since introducing the program to its Dare campus last fall, the local community has supported PACE and Manteo Mayor Jamie Daniels even signed a proclamation last fall to show the town’s support of the program.
“I think it’s a great program,” Daniels said. “It needs to be something more than a program – it needs to be a national undertaking to allow people to work and take care of themselves. People need a sense of personal value and this gives that to them.”
A number of area businesses have also worked with COA over the past year to provide PACE students with internships so they can learn the skills they need.
“Several county businesses have come on board and are willing to provide opportunities to place these individuals in real work experiences,” said Sandy Scarborough, director of Dare County Center, a local governmental agency. “They are not just volunteering but actually getting paid for the work they are doing.”
Dottie Patton, a PACE student who will be starting her second year in the program this fall, began working at Village Realty in Nags Head last year and was asked to return this summer where she currently works. Recently, Scarborough said, Patton was given a raise.
“I loved it,” Patton said of her first year in the program. “At first it was kind of hard. I didn’t know how to work the computers and I had a hard time with the reading.”
Although Patton struggled a bit with her computer class last year, she said she is looking forward to taking a few nursing classes during the upcoming year, as well completing an internship with the local health department. She wants to land a human service position in nursing after completing the PACE program, and the upcoming year will help put her on that path.
Patton hopes her training as a nursing assistant will provide her with a higher-paying job that allows her to live independently and leave the group home where she currently resides.
Besides the human resource development classes Patton and the other PACE students took last year, they also learned how to navigate socially, on campus and off, through their student mentors. All four PACE students were paired with student mentors last year, as will PACE’s four new students this fall, as a way of acclimating the students to academic life and helping make that a smooth transition.
“It was a very rewarding to see them learn new things in the classroom and become more confident,” said Savannah Hibbs, Patton’s student mentor. “Just getting to go out and do things on their own, they were definitely happy.”
Those in the Dare County community have seen the impact the program has had on the PACE students that have integrated into college life. Scarborough said the students are interacting with their professors and fellow classmates which has provided them with invaluable life skills and socialization opportunities.
“Dottie has made several new friends and has been able to participate in new experiences she would never have had the opportunity to be a part of without being a college student,” Scarborough said. “She has learned so many things, not just what she is taught in the specific classes she takes but social skills that are necessary for everyday life and what they will need as they move on into the workforce.”
“There is nothing that can measure the value of an individual growing and learning and most of all building confidence in themselves and being proud of themselves,” Scarborough added. “The community benefits as well from learning to interact with individuals with disabilities and realizing they can do a lot more than some people give them credit for.”
For more information about the PACE program, contact Wanda Fletcher at (252) 335-0821 x 2259.
Photo: PACE Student, Dottie Patton (on right) with Village Realty warehouse manager, Christina Gooch.