You may believe that college is out of the question for young adults with intellectual disabilities. But that’s not the case anymore.
Augustana University is beginning the second year of a new program called Augie Access. It’s designed for students who have Downs Syndrome or Autism to give them the college experience.
Morgan Mitchell is in her third week of college at Augustana University. It’s something her mother never thought possible.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that college would be something I could expect for Morgan. And I think having a child with Downs Syndrome, when you get that initial diagnosis, it’s pretty scary because you really don’t know what to expect with that,” Morgan’s mother Diane Mitchell said.
Now you might think that Morgan would be a little apprehensive about starting at a new school with all new people, but you’d be wrong.
Morgan Mitchell: “I’m not scared.”
Angela Kennecke: “You’re not scared anymore.”
Morgan: “I’m excited.”
Kennecke: “You’re excited?”
Morgan: “For Augie.”
Morgan is one of 5 students with intellectual disabilities starting the Augie Access Program this year. There are five students who kicked off the program last year, including Brett Billeter, who happens to be the son of Augustana’s basketball coach, Tom Billeter.
“We dropped him off at the dorm the very first day; maybe September Labor Day weekend and he came home again for Thanksgiving in November — we never saw him,” Tom Billeter said.
The Billeters were planning on sending Brett to a post-secondary education program in Northwest, Iowa, when Augie Access opened up. While not all students in the program live independently, it’s at the top of Brett’s list.
Angela Kennecke: “What did you like best?”
Brett Billeter: “Not living at home. [Laughter]”
“We knew Brett has some tendencies to be independent, he just had to get out there and do it and be on his own,” Paula Billeter said.
“We make thousands and thousands of decisions a day,” the teacher in classroom said.
Brett and his classmates are taking classes to help prepare them to be even more independent, like this one on decision making. The Augie Access students also learn about employment, leadership and dealing with social situations. Plus, they can take classes along with the rest of Augie’s students. Morgan’s favorites, so far, are her gym classes.
“We know that going to college, you’re twice as likely to get a job and so these Augie Access students aren’t necessarily degree seeking — but they’re going to college,” Matthew Johnson, Education Professor at Augustana University said.
After three years in the program the students will receive a certificate of completion, not a college degree. But for students who want to go on to get their degree, that will be encouraged.
“We also think there’s an opportunity for some of our Augie Access students who cognitively can participate in a college course, take a course for a grade, kind of dip their toes in that and then if they experience success, they can switch over to a degree-seeking tract and actually graduate from Augustana,” Johnson said.
Degree or not, the benefits of the program are evident to the students’ parents.
“I think it is teaching her even more independence and problem solving and just being able to relate to all different types of people,” Diane Mitchell said.
“Just the entire social aspect–the ability to interact–the ability to live independently and eventually a job–something he enjoys doing and wants to do and we’re very confident he’ll give back to society,” Tom Billeter said.
Each student in the program is also assigned a peer navigator to help them get around and through more difficult classes.
“At the beginning I had a little problem with my nutrition class,” Brett Billeter said.
Brett has caught on and is well on his way to getting through the program.
“At the end of the three years, my goal is to have them walk across the stage at commencement. And they’ll receive their certificate that they completed the Augie Access program,” Johnson said.
While it’s only three weeks into the fall semester, Morgan is ready to go the distance to earn that honor.
“I love Augie,” Morgan Mitchell said.
The three-year program is funded by a $300,000 grant from the South Dakota Department of Labor and the Department of Human Services. After that money runs out, Augustana has a plan in place to get more funding so that Augie Access can continue.
Most of the $25,000 a year in tuition for students is covered through government programs for the developmentally disabled. However, families do have some out-of-pocket expenses.