Next Steps at Vanderbilt receives Tennessee Believes Grant to fund new major

First-of-its-kind Self Advocates in Leadership major will be offered to Next Steps students starting in Fall 2022.

Wyatt Lawn, as photographed on Nov. 4, 2021.

Robert Richards

Wyatt Lawn, as photographed on Nov. 4, 2021. (Hustler Multimedia/Robert Richards)

Mae Monette, Staff Writer

The Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) announced on Jan.14 that Next Steps at Vanderbilt was one of four recipients, out of nine applicants, of the first-ever Tennessee Believes grant. The grant aims to support and increase the number of higher education programs in Tennessee for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Next Steps was awarded $103,650 for one year and possible funding of $207,300 for two additional years to form a new interdisciplinary major, Self-Advocates in Leadership (SAIL). 

“We have not been provided any additional details about the possibility of two-years funding and what that is contingent upon,” Next Steps Assistant Director and Academic Development Director Lauren Bethune-Dix said in an email to The Hustler.

SAIL will be a 4-year program with a focus on disability leadership and public policy and will be available to Next Steps students beginning in Fall 2022.

“Many of the students enrolled through Next Steps really want to be leaders and are true advocates,” Bethune-Dix said. “What better way to capitalize on these strengths than building out this course of study?”

Next Steps was launched at Vanderbilt in 2010. It is a 4-year program that provides students with intellectual disabilities an inclusive college education in academics, social and career development. Other Vanderbilt students can also become involved through its peer mentor program, Ambassadores

“We are passionate about making sure everyone is very aware that this is a partnership and all parties are learning from each other,” senior and Ambassadores President Zoe Rankin said. “Equity and reciprocity are really emphasized.”

Bethune-Dix said SAIL is the first set of courses that Next Steps has formed as a major for its students. Next Steps students can currently take program-specific Career and Community (CCS) courses and select Vanderbilt courses to complete their program of studies for a certificate in CCS. Per Bethune-Dix, SAIL will also involve Vanderbilt faculty and courses, which will be focused on leadership, public policy and disability advocacy. Students in SAIL will still be non-degree seeking, certificate students, per Bethune-Dix.

“[Next Steps is] also hoping with this grant to create our own courses that will be inclusive and that our students could participate in with traditionally enrolled students,” Bethune-Dix said.

Next Steps also plans to add a leadership enrichment component to the new major, per Bethune-Dix. This will include planning about 900 leadership experiences for its students to self-select to attend. She further said Next Steps plans to recruit mentors from around the country who are self-advocates to help students in the program learn more about public policy and disability awareness. 

“[Leadership experiences] are where we are utilizing as many partnerships we have with Vanderbilt,” Bethune-Dix said. “As much as our [Next Steps] students will benefit from this, those [Vanderbilt] folks will also benefit from being involved with our students in this reciprocal relationship.”

Rankin said Next Steps and Ambassadores have taken initiatives to increase inclusivity and opportunities on Vanderbilt’s campus over the past four years, including planning social mixers for students in the program and supporting students in joining organizations on campus, such as Greek Life and club sports. Rankin said she is excited to see the continued impact of Next Steps students through SAIL.

“I can only imagine what our program at Vanderbilt is going to look like in five years when our first [SAIL] cohort graduates,” Rankin said. “I get so excited thinking about all of the opportunities that these people [Next Steps students], who are already such powerful self-advocates, will be able to have and the way that they will then go and impact the world.”