Next Steps: Vanderbilt’s inclusive higher education program

Next Steps provides inclusive higher education to students with intellectual disabilities and cultivates meaningful relationships throughout campus

Hoping to continue her family’s tradition of attending Vanderbilt, Elizabeth Story applied to the Next Steps program when it was first implemented at the university. She was accepted to the program, eager to gain a true college experience. After graduating with the first class of Next Steps students in 2011, Story reflects on the impact it has had for her.

“I hope that the Vanderbilt community learns through seeing Next Steps students on the campus how important it is for everyone to have a college experience and that the Next Steps students are just like them,” Story said.

Next Steps is an inclusive higher education program at Vanderbilt that provides educational, social and career development opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities. Next Steps students work with Ambassadores, who are peer mentors that strive to build relationships and support students in academics, social life and personal development.

In addition to spending time with her Ambassadores, one of Story’s favorite memories with the program was meeting two singer/songwriters during one of her first year classes and learning how to write a song. When the group of students finished writing their songs, the singer/songwriters performed them at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Story recalls this as an especially impactful moment over her two years with the program.

“I am so glad that Next Steps at Vanderbilt exists and that other universities are creating programs like it on their campuses because everyone deserves to have a college experience,” Story said.

Story also said that cultivating increased independence over the course of the program was an influential part of her time at Vanderbilt. She now works at the Susan Gray school, after beginning her involvement there before her time with Next Steps.

Next Steps Beginnings

Next Steps started as a two year program and accepted its first class of students in January 2010. There have been a total of nine classes of students accepted, and since 2010, 55 students have come through the program. Tammy Day, the Director of Next Steps, first learned about this type of inclusive programming in colleges around twelve years ago when she was a special education teacher. At this point, there were not inclusive higher education programs at universities in Tennessee, but Day helped make the program a reality at Vanderbilt. A task force worked to create programming in Tennessee, with Day serving as a local educator on the task force.

“After this task force had been going for about three years, the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities knew if we don’t put some money behind this to do a pilot in our state, I don’t think we’re ever going to get anywhere,” Day said. “So because of a very very generous donor in the community that matched the grant, they joined and Vanderbilt was awarded a three year pilot grant which allowed them to hire a director and to get started.”

Next Steps at Vanderbilt is one of five similar programs in the state for inclusive higher education, and Vanderbilt is the only top 20 university with an inclusive higher education program like this. The task force that initially worked to create the programs evolved into the Tennessee Inclusive Higher Education Alliance, with Day currently serving as the chairperson. The group works with legislators and coordinates with the programs throughout the state. One of the pieces of legislation the group worked to pass was the Step Up scholarship, which provides scholarships to students entering any of these five programs.

Last fall, Next Steps was approved as a four year program, meaning that the upcoming academic year will be the first year with juniors as part of Next Steps. Transitioning from a two year program to a four year program allows for increased growth for the students and an opportunity to expand its impacts.

“Going forward with our four year expansion, our goal is to have 40 students, so accepting 10 students a year,” Day said.

Daily Life of Next Steps

Each Next Steps student takes a combination of three Career and Community Studies (CCS) classes and one or two Vanderbilt classes. CCS classes are specific to the program and focus on topics such as independent living, self awareness and career development. This has been the structure for the two year program, but independent study may be an option for juniors and seniors in future years of the program.

Next Steps students also participate in internships in many different career fields. Lindsay Krech, Assistant Director of Career Development, coordinates field trips for first semester students to help them explore various career options and reflect on what works best for them. First year students can then begin internships during second semester. Sophomores also participate in internships, further exploring potential career directions. Students work with job coaches in their internships to learn required job tasks and develop skills.

“For juniors our goal is that they have paid internships,” Krech said. “Most of them will be out in the community and then by senior year we hope that they’re in a paid job in their field of interest that they can continue to work in after they graduate. That’s our goal for our four year plan.”

In addition to classes and internships, Next Steps students are involved in many different campus organizations. Peach Chinratanalab, a second year Next Steps student, says that going to acapella concerts with friends and helping groups such as the Melodores table at Rand are some of her favorite parts of social life with Next Steps.

“My favorite part is hanging out with friends and getting the opportunity to form many different career fields,” Chinratanalab said.

Kristi van Wulven is a first year Next Steps student who participates in the Special Olympics and Best Buddies in addition to attending campus events such as concerts.

“I’m in the Campus Life Ambassadore athletic group,” van Wulven said. “And I’m in two different groups. I’m in the athletic group and we go to different Vanderbilt athletic events on campus and off campus. So we go to baseball, basketball, bowling, and football. And I’m also in the arts and music group.”

John Cayton, Director of Student Supports and Campus Life, works with Next Steps students and Ambassadores to coordinate between the groups and facilitate involvement on campus. He emphasized the importance of inclusivity in organizations around campus and bridging the gap in knowledge about the program throughout the Vanderbilt community.

“I just hope that we can spread awareness that these are your peers––they’re college students and they have access to participate in any area of campus life that they hope to be a part of,” Cayton said. “I think that’s the biggest thing right now. You know Peabody side knows, but when you go across the bridge there’s a lot of ‘I don’t really know what’s going on.’”  

Ambassadores Program

Ambassadores are Vanderbilt students who work with students in the Next Steps program in various capacities. There are four roles that an Ambassadore can take on, including tutor, workout buddy, daily planner, and lunch buddy. There are currently around 80 Ambassadores working with students, but Cayton hopes this number will grow next year as more students will be enrolled in the program due to the four year extension.

The number of Ambassadores that each Next Step student works with depends on the individual student. While each session can vary depending on the needs of the student during that particular time, one consistent aspect of these sessions is the opportunity to form a relationship between peers. Pooja Santapuram, President of Next Steps, underscored the impact that her involvement as an Ambassadore has had on her Vanderbilt experience.

“What I see as the biggest takeaway for both Next Steps students and Ambassadores is friendship,” Santapuram said via email. “Both the Next Steps students and Vanderbilt Ambassadores benefit tremendously from their relationships with one another. I have built many strong friendships with the students I have worked with over the years, to the point where many of them seem to know me better than I know myself at times.”

Both Chinratanalab and van Wulven echoed the sentiment that cultivating friendships with Ambassadores was an important part of the program.

“My favorite part of Next Steps is getting to know people and getting to know the Next Steps staff and students and Ambassadores,”  van Wulven said.

Beyond Vanderbilt

One of the most important aspects of Next Steps is providing students with the tools to discover their career path of interest and pursue employment opportunities. Working with the Vanderbilt and Nashville community offers opportunities that some students may continue to be involved in post-graduation.

“Nationally a little under 20 percent of people with disabilities are currently employed,” Krech said. “And that compares with our employment rate of our alumni which is just shy of 90 percent.”

For Elizabeth Story, independence was an essential takeaway from her time with Next Steps. Beyond just employment, the intangibles of the program are just as important for students within the program and alumni.

“Now I am living in a condo with one of my friends and I think without Next Steps I would still be living with my parents,” Story said.

As Next Steps welcomes its first class of juniors, the program continues to bring value to the Vanderbilt community through its inclusivity and emphasis on educational and social opportunities for every student.

“Vanderbilt prides itself on excellence, but to me you can’t be excellent if you’re excluding part of the population,” Krech said. “And so Vanderbilt University as a whole is a better place because our students are here. And people often think of the reverse of that––that our students are better because they’re at Vanderbilt. Yes, but Vanderbilt’s better because our students are here.”

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Kelly McHale (2020) is a Senior Writer for the Campus section of the Vanderbilt Hustler. She is from Fairfax, Virginia but now considers Nashville to be home as well. While she is currently undecided about her major, Kelly is interested in political activism and nonprofit work. Her favorite thing to do in Nashville is explore coffee shops.

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