Student story: College Student, Vocalist, Firefighter

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My name is Johnny Bairaktaris, and I have been a student in the College Steps Program at Norwalk Community College for almost one year. Currently, I am taking three courses at NCC; two of the courses are exercise classes, and the other course is a chorus class. Exercising is one of my passions; I work out every day and being in good physical shape is important to me. Additionally, I am passionate about singing. I have been singing since I was about 8 years old and chorus is something that I love taking. This past summer, I earned my Guard Card through NCC.

Since I was young, I have always wanted to be a firefighter; a job where I am helping people and saving lives is important to me. This past October, I was sworn into the Southport Volunteer Fire Department, as a active Volunteer Firefighter. Additionally, with the support of College Steps, I became a Probationary Firefighter for the Rowayton Volunteer Fire Department. I look forward to taking on more responsibilities for both departments. Every Thursday, at the Rowayton Fire Department, I participate in drills-- this is the highlight of my volunteer experience. 

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Open House at both the Annandale and Loudoun campuses

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College Steps is a non-profit organization that partners with Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) at both the Annandale and Loudoun campuses to provide support for college/college-bound students living with social or learning challenges (e.g., learning disabilities, autism, developmental, or intellectual disabilities).

On Thursday, December 14th from 6:00-7:00 PM, we will offer an Open House at both the Annandale and Loudoun campuses. Please RSVP by December 8th as space is limited. 

Register for the Open House at NOVA - Annandale

Register for the Open House at NOVA - Loudoun

Please contact Brya Emery, Director of Admissions & Enrollment with any questions at or 802-578-0035.

We look forward to meeting you!

College Steps student at NOVA: Loudoun is a Rising Star

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Rose Pleskow is attacking life without boundaries.

"She has a competitive spirit, she wants to do better, she wants to go faster," said Denis Crean.

Born with intellectual disabilities and epilepsy, the Reston, Virginia, native competes internationally in open water swimming.

"My mom started swimming when she was pregnant with me, so I've been swimming all my life," said Rose Pleskow.

Pleskow trains with a group called WaveOne Swimming in the Potomac River at National Harbor, Maryland, with her mom right by her side.

"Just to look up and sometimes our faces meet," said Susan Pleskow. "It’s just pure heaven to me."

Rose is one terrific athlete, along with open water swimming, she’s quite the runner as well.

Back in 2011 at the Special Olympics World Games in Athens, Greece, she won the bronze medal in the 1500 meters race, which is just a perfect example of Rose being able to do anything she puts her mind to.

"When I won the bronze medal, I almost cried because I worked so hard for it," said Rose.

Now, she's focused on starting college and getting a degree.

"Don’t let the people in the past tell you that you can’t do anything because you can do it," said Rose.

Rose is definitely becoming a leader everybody should follow.

Autistic Scholars Fellowship 2018

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The application for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network's scholarship program for autistic college students, the Autistic Scholars Fellowship, has been released. You can find that application and more information about the scholarship here. ASAN would really appreciate if you could distribute the application to anyone you think would be a good candidate for the Fellowship, or who might know someone that would be. Thanks so much for your help, and feel free to let ASAN know if you have any questions or would like to talk more about the resources ASAN has for autistic adults and college students!

College For All Town Meeting at CSU

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Bernie Sanders will be holding a “College for All Town Meeting” at Castleton University on October 10 at 7 p.m. to discuss his legislation that would provide free tuition to all students who attend public colleges and universities.


The event will also be livestreamed on the Senator’s official Facebook page (


Students in Vermont and throughout the country will be participating in their own events to join the Senator in supporting “College for All” legislation.


If you are able to attend, please RSVP with Senator Sanders’ office, by completing this form.

Future Quest 2017

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I am happy to announce that registration is now open for Future Quest 2017! To register as a vendor please click on this link:


Also, please be sure to help spread the word to all parents, students and educators who would benefit from this fantastic event.


Future Quest is a FREE college and career conference held every two years for middle and high school students with disabilities, young adults with disabilities, their families, and professionals who work with them. It is organized by George Mason University and the Northern Virginia Transition Coalition. One of the largest events of its kind in Virginia, Future Quest features more than 40 workshops and 40 exhibits related to successful life after high school. 


Registration Flyer


Future Quest Main Information Site





Department of Labor Presentation hosted by College Steps at Southern Vermont College


College Steps at Southern Vermont College was very happy to host a jobs and careers workshop on campus. We are grateful to Melany from the Vermont Department of Labor for sharing her talent and expertise. To contact Melany for more information and resources:

Melany Letourneau

Job Center Specialist II, GCDF

 WIOA Adult/DLW Case Manager


Vermont Department of Labor

200 Veterans Memorial Drive

Suite 2

Bennington, VT 05201


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Transitioning to Adulthood


Report to Congress: Young Adults and Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder Transitioning to Adulthood

A new Report to Congress compiled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) finds there is a critical need for research and better coordinated services targeted to youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who are transitioning to adulthood. In anApril 2017 blog, we noted that about 50,000 youth with ASD turn 18 each year, with about 450,000 total aged 16-24 years old living in the United States today. A major finding of the report is that there are very few federal resources that specifically target youth and young adults with ASD transitioning to adulthood. A recent portfolio analysis from the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) also found that issues related to transition age youth and adults comprised only 2 percent of all autism research funding, both federal and private, in 2015. To learn more about the need for more resources for those with Autism, view the full report.

College Steps at Lyndon State College is excited to welcome 6 new mentors to our program.


College Steps at Lyndon State College is excited to welcome 6 new mentors to our program.


College Steps offers students the support of our peer mentor network. Peer mentors are there to lend a hand and help College Steps students feel more comfortable as they navigate the college social network. Peer mentors are carefully selected, trained, and closely supervised by College Steps’ professional staff


“I think its great having a mentor... They have experience on campus so they can show you the ropes. I feel good interacting with other people instead of just being on my own. Without the support it would be tough. College Steps helped to boost my confidence a lot.” 


New Think College Website

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For the last 18 months, members of Think College staff, the ICI Marketing and Communications (MAC) team, and numerous others, have been working on this complete overhaul. The outcome is a cleaner look, a landing page that is more current and easier to navigate, and some new features, as well!


"I'm so proud of this new site," said Cate Weir, Think College's project director. "It looks fantastic, and it's so much easier for people to find what they're looking for."


Users will continue to find a wide range of publications and other resources, a large library of archived webinars, a comprehensive list of current college programs, as well as an improved TPSID only portal, our new Innovation Exchange, and information from our new Affinity Groups.


We appreciate your support and hope you are able to utilize this site in your work and also recommend it to others. 

Autism Speaks DC Walk

Please consider participation in the Autism Speaks DC Walk on Saturday, October 7 at the JFK Hockey Field on the National Mall.  There are many different levels and forms of participation, as follows:


  • Form a team—I am hoping that you will consider forming a team of walkers who raise funds individually and as a group.  This year, the incentive at the $150 level is a specially-designed Tommy Hilfiger t-shirt (he is on our national board!).  All you need to do is register a team captain at and then recruit others to register on your team.  Everyone gets a personal web page to personalize and use to send out emails…very easy!
  • Promote the walk—Please help us spread the word about the walk.  We want to reach parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, colleagues, neighbors, acquaintances…everyone who loves and cares for people with autism and their families.  You can post our flyers, send out an announcement in your newsletter, or ask for a speaker to come from Autism Speaks for a “Lunch and Learn” program.  

Autism Speaks is the world’s leading science and advocacy organization, and our mission is to enhance lives today and accelerate a spectrum of solutions for tomorrow.  In the next decade, we have aggressive objectives including improving the transition to adulthood, being a catalyst for research breakthroughs, and increasing global understanding & acceptance of autism.

The Walk is central to us achieving our objectives.  It is our signature event, raising more than 50% of the revenue we need each year.   This year’s walk will be sensory-friendly.  Instead of clapping and shouting, we will shake pom-poms.  Our finish line will be bubbles.  This will truly be a place where families will feel comfortable bringing their children.

Please feel free to contact me by email at  or by calling 202.510.7533 if you have any questions.

Thank you for your consideration and support.  I hope to see you at the Walk!

Webinar and Information to Share

College Steps participated in a webinar hosted by the Arc of Northern Virginia. Together with College Steps, several other organizations and agencies shared information about their services. Please enjoy the audio recording and attached information we've shared. There are exciting developments and opportunities in the world of accessible post secondary education!

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College Steps Graduates at Johnson State College

Three students completed the College Steps certificate program at Johnson State College this year. It was an especially exciting ceremony, as Bernie Sanders was the commencement speaker.

Pictured is Tyler Enman.  His focus at JSC was math and music and he wants to work with youth as a tutor or in after school programs.  He completed his internship with the DREAM program which mentors local youth living within affordable housing communities.  He was an active member of the Bad Integers math club, the JSC Chess Club, the Humans vs. Zombies club, the MAGIC: The Gathering Club, the Dungeons and Dragons club, and the Living for Giving Club... he was very active socially!


The other gentleman is Calvin Raymond.  Calvin focused on the fine arts and hopes to be a chef some day.  He completed his internship with Sodexo our campus food provider (see attached picture).  Near the end of his internship he was offered employment in the kitchen and is now working 25 hours a week and is moving towards full time employment with them.


Maleia Wentworth focused on communication (verbal and written) and completed her internship at Stowe Mountain Adventure Center in the kitchen.  She now works at Stowe Mountain Lodge and her internship has given her the opportunity to take on other positions within the resort that are more aligned with her interests (cooking and working with kids).  


The last 3 pictures are of those students with mentors at our small College Steps ceremony where the students present to family and friends on why they think they've earned their certificate.

STUDENT VOICE: They told me I’d never go to college but I just finished my freshman year — what about all the other students with autism?

It’s time to prepare all learners for the future.


A few years ago, I was on track to receive a modified high school diploma. I was spoken to using basic English with minimal words and taught in separate facilities.

I was unable to express most of my thoughts verbally; so many professionals such as teachers and doctors were unable to see how intelligent I was.

Then at 18 years old, I had a communication breakthrough when I began to use an iPad. I was finally able to express my personal thoughts and share what I know, graduating from high school at age 21.

After years of being told I would never go to college, I just finished up my freshman year.

But what about all of the other students with autism?

Unfortunately, to many people, autism and a lack of communication skills, doesn’t evoke images of a college student.

As more and more students like me enter higher education, we need well-designed systems that are intentional in the way they support us. We need environments designed to meet our sensory needs, faculty trained in how to interact with us and social skill lessons that challenge us, but also prepare us for our future.

Within the next ten years, according to research from Drexel University, it is estimated that approximately 500,000 young Americans diagnosed with Autism will enter adulthood. Presently, increasing numbers of students with autism are entering higher education. This wave of students is slowly forcing institutions of higher education to create programs that specifically address students’ diverse needs, but some colleges are not prepared.

When a student with autism is in a public school, the school must comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), which provides special education and related services to students ages 3-21, as well as the Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to make sure students receive proper supports.

“Unless all institutions of higher education make major adjustments, college is not going to reach a significant portion of students with autism and that would almost be a crime, because we have a whole lot to contribute — not just to colleges, but to the world.” 

In college, however, IDEA is no longer applicable; only Section 504 and ADA applies. This means that colleges must only provide things such as wheelchair ramps and elevators, as well as extra time for tests, interpreters or note takers.

Yet for individuals with autism, these accommodations don’t consider other unique needs such as communicative intents or difficulties processing sensory stimuli.  Students like myself need help navigating the dining halls, finding strategies that address our sensory needs and communicating with others — these are what makes college accessible.

At Ohio University, I am part of a program for students on the autism spectrum. I chose Ohio University because after visiting multiple schools to which I was accepted, I believe they were best suited to meet the needs of a student like myself.

However, my first couple days at college were lonely and agonizing. I sat in my dorm room with my cornucopia of snacks and sobbed. My roommate and suitemates appeared to be adjusting well, although, I was anything but fine. I video-called my mother multiple times per day, in tears.

I was assigned an autism transition coach; an upper class student majoring in communication and science disorders, to serve as my mentor. We walked around campus, took trips to each dining hall, created visual schedules to help organize my time alone and worked through any issues as they arose. Like many other freshman, I slowly began to grasp the pleasure of college.

In many ways, I got lucky. I found a program that could meet my needs and a university that advocates for my success. From my professors to the administration, almost everyone has been welcoming and supportive of my needs — taking the time to meet with me when I have any questions or concerns.

But college life is not perfect.

Sometimes, I am overwhelmed and I meet with my transition coach — and that’s enough. But there are days where I go back to my dorm crying in anguish, hitting my head, unsure of the next step. When I get frustrated, I cry in class. While some of my professors and the people who work closely with me, have learned to notice when I am becoming overstimulated.

I struggle with things that many people are unaware of. In the classroom, I have to work extra hard to filter out noises such as the humming of lights or the new construction taking place outside. College campuses aren’t designed to appease to individuals with heightened sensory systems.

Communicating with my peers can also be a challenge. I have been asked whether I’m a student on campus or how I am capable of living in a dorm. Sometimes, I don’t know what people believe a student like myself is worth. While social activities obviously aren’t always easy, I use my communication device to participate vigorously in academic and extracurricular opportunities. Shouldn’t everyone be given the chance to embrace higher education?
In the end, college is about relationships, new experiences and perseverance. It’s about everyone learning to live and work side by side with people from very diverse backgrounds, while also acknowledging the fact that everyone’s contributions are worthwhile.

It’s a place where people adjust and learn. It’s a place of new experiences; of learning and growing away from home – and discovering what you’re capable of. Although, unless all institutions of higher education make major adjustments, college is not going to reach a significant portion of students with autism and that would almost be a crime, because we have a whole lot to contribute — not just to colleges, but to the world.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

 Jordyn Zimmerman is a rising sophomore at Ohio University.


Insights from a Different Kind of Student

Kalin Wachsmuth is completing his second semester with College Steps at NCC and has been very active with joining The Voice (NCC Student Newspaper) and also working closely with the Student Activities office to help plan events on campus. Kalin spent a great deal of time writing this article about himself and was quite proud to have it published. Kalin also takes a journalism class at NCC.

Hi all! My name is Kalin, a first year at

NCC and soon to be a second year. I have many

dreams in life like everyone else does, including

the fact that I want to make history someday in

this country while having Autism, a brain disor—


One of my thoughts about Autism is to

to develop Kalin Digital System (KDS), which

will help people with autism and others to learn

about the potential of people who have this par—

ticular learning condition. My idea is to inspire

and advocate, so that people who are on the Autism

spectrum can reach their full intellectual


One thing I liked about NCC is many

students have learning differences like mine.

Other things I enjoy about the college is the ease

of public transportation, the events, the people I

meet and the services provided by the school.

I do believe some improvements can be

made. I think students, including me, can create

more excitement and spirit on campus.

Another thing that could be improved is

the services and how well they are structured. It’s

not that it’s bad; but, there are some things that

could be improved to help students, especially

those with learning differences, become mom

engaged in the educational process.

I have a unique perspective on NCC in

that for one year I attended Western Connecti

cut State University in Danbury. That campus i.

quite different, with dorms, a bigger budget ant

more resources.

That does not mean that it’s a bettel

school, just different.Western Connecticut tendl

to produce bigger events, and has a “West Fest”

which includes carnival rides and concerts witl

popular singers. Norwalk CC, however, also ha

interesting and engaging events. They are jut

not of the scale that is offered at Western.

All in all, my first year has been challeng

ing. At first, I felt isolated. I feel people aren

outgoing enough to reach out to others, even i

my case since I have difficulties making friend

for the most part.

The biggest challenge, though, is balanc

ing social life and coursework, especially when

I may be taking 2-3 classes instead of one nex


Kalin War/erut}: is a reporterfar The Vain


Spartan Newspaper Wins Award

The Castleton Spartan student newspaper was recently selected by the New England Society of News Editors as one of the top college newspapers in the region.

            The award, third runner-up for best college newspaper in New England, will be awarded on April 20 in Dedham, Massachusetts.

Though no members of the staff will be attending the award ceremony, co-editors Jadie Dow and Carly Trombley said they are very proud of the achievement.

            “The fact that we won anything makes me so proud because there were so many papers submitted from all over New England. I feel like we represented our school and state really well,” Trombley said.

            Qualifications for the award included submitting two issues within certain date parameters and including several copies of the issues selected. Based on the criteria, the Spartan staff chose two issues from the 2016-17 school year, with communication professor Bob Gershon and Huden Dining Hall legend “Q,”  as the front-page centerpiece stories respectively.

            Advisor for the newspaper, professor David Blow, was as excited about the award as his students.

            “It’s not first place, but these students essentially produced the fourth best collegiate paper in New England, and that feels pretty good,” Blow said.

            Online editor Catherine Twing also feels a sense of pride over the award.

            “Out of all the college newspapers in New England who entered, we were among the best and that feels great. I’m also really proud of our staff, and we wouldn’t have gotten here without Dave, so we owe him a lot,” Twing said.

            Dow, a senior currently interning at the Rutland Herald with Twing, has been a part of the staff for most of her college career and sad the award is a nice surprise to end her college career.

            “When we entered this competition, it seemed pretty far-fetched to me. It’s just reassurance to me that we are doing something right. We work really hard, and it’s great to see that our work is being acknowledged,” she said.