College Steps Expands to Three New Campuses

It’s been a busy April at College Steps H.Q. with the addition of three new college partnerships beginning Fall 2018. Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) Alexandria in Virginia, Connecticut College and County College of Morris in New Jersey have all signed-on to partner with College Steps in providing individualized, peer-mentor based transition programming and support for students living with social or learning challenges.

“We are very excited to be working with these institutions and the surrounding high schools,” said College Steps’ Co-Founder, Lauren Merritt. “Our efforts complement the existing work of these institutions and attract additional talented students interested in our model of support. We look forward to meeting new families, high schools, and community partners to collaboratively build sustainable and long-term options for transition-aged youth living with disabilities.”

With the addition of these three schools, College Steps expands its services and operations to a dozen institutions stretching across the East Coast and Mid-Atlantic.

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College leaders from each institution expressed approval and excitement in joining forces. Dr. Bette Simmons, Vice President of Student Development & Enrollment Management at County College of Morris stated that “partnering with College Steps allows us to ensure that our students with disabilities have access to strong comprehensive support systems that will allow them to increase their chances of success as well as encourage their participation and overall involvement in the entire academic experience.”

College Steps will be hosting a series of public Information Sessions over the coming weeks to provide prospective students, parents, guardians, school district personnel, and advocates with information about services offered, including the individualized support model, admissions process and associated costs. Information Sessions for NOVA Alexandria are free, but please RSVP via Eventbrite as soon as possible:

NOVA Alexandria


The priority application deadline for Fall 2018 enrollment is May. Additional information and applications are available at www.collegesteps.org/apply

Mentor of the Month: Savannah Santiago

Savannah Santiago is now in her third year as a mentor in the College Steps program at Southern Vermont College (SVC). This spring, she will graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Services.  

 Savannah Santiago

Savannah Santiago

But that wasn’t always her goal. As a freshman in college, Savannah had her sights set on a career in nursing. Her experience as a trained mentor within the College Steps program, however, helped reshape her personal and professional goals.

“Working with College Steps students has shown me that I want to be in a field where I can be creative in my attempts to help others. It has shown me my passion is helping others and for that I am grateful,” said Savannah.

Thanks to her experience as a College Steps Peer Mentor, after graduation, Savannah plans to pursue a career in social work or case management.

Darcy Oakes, College Steps’ Program Coordinator at SVC noted Savannah’s creativity in her nomination, explaining that Savannah often shows fellow students how to use activities like painting and cooking to overcome stress and develop life skills.

Savannah says peer mentorship taught her that success can look like different things to different people. “It’s not about how you get there. It’s about how dedicated you are,” she added.

 Congratulations Savannah on being the College Steps’ Peer Mentor of the Month!

Striking the Right Balance Between Work and Play

Let’s face it, transitioning from high school to college can be difficult.  It doesn’t matter who you are or where your strengths lie. Living in a new community with a new set of social norms, while adapting to more rigorous curriculum is no easy task. This, combined with the fact that students are forming new social connections and managing their own schedules, and the pressure can be enough to send even the most highly organized, socially adept young adults packing their bags. 

U.S. News & World Report says that as many as 1 in 3 first-year college students won't make it back for their sophomore year. For some, the freedom to self-prioritize results in too much time spent on social endeavors and not enough time hitting the books.

But for students with diagnosed learning or social challenges, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, the balance between work and social activities often tips in the opposite direction. For many of these students, the prospect of cultivating new social connections in college can feel intimidating. The sights and sounds of the campus environment can be overwhelming for people whose challenges include sensory disorders. In these cases there can be a tendency to turn away from the social interaction of campus life.   

Yet social and extracurricular involvement in college is shown to be a key element of student overall success and happiness. There are numerous evidence-based studies showing human interaction is key to a person’s mental and physical health - both of which can be tested during times of big life transitions - like transitioning from high school to college.  

That is why a pillar of College Steps’ mission is to provide the social supports needed to help students more fully integrate into campus life. Both through our network of on-campus peer mentors and the encouragement and help of our on-campus program coordinators, students are given opportunities to form connections and participate in group activities.

 Photo by Brigitta Gough. 

Photo by Brigitta Gough. 

One successful example of these supports is Brandon Farrell, a second year student at Castleton University in Vermont who started his own campus bowling league. Brandon’s story was recently featured in the campus newspaper the Castleton Spartan:

“...He started competing at the age of six or seven years old and once his attempt to make a bowling club in high school did not succeed, he made it his mission to start one in college.

Patricia Moore, coordinator of College Steps that provides college experience for those with developmental disabilities, asked Farrell what he liked to do in his free time and what clubs he wanted to join at Castleton when he came to the school in the fall of 2016. His immediate reply was he wanted to have a bowling club...

In their first meeting they had fewer than 10 students, but now the club has expanded to over ten. Last year when the club began they just bowled for fun. Now they are competing in tournaments in the USBC Collegiate League.

The members of the club are supportive of each other. They high five each other after each person goes and they cheer each other on. For Farrell, this has helped him.

‘From my perspective, this has been a truly amazing experience. I’ve seen so much growth in Farrell; in his self-esteem, being able to independently communicate with people about rides, getting together and stuff,’ Moore said…

One of the greatest parts of the club for Farrell is that it has allowed him to get out of his comfort zone and make friends.”

Activities like this are more than just a way to pass time. They are opportunities for students to form and maintain critical social connections - connections that ultimately allow us to stay healthy and relieve stress, making the academic part of the college experience more manageable.

When it comes to not striking out at college, the key can be striking the right balance.

College Steps Student Featured in the "Stamford Advocate"

The Stamford Advocate's Erin Kayata wrote the following story for the April 14, 2018 edition of the daily newspaper the "Stamford Advocate"...

STAMFORD — Michael Schiro was confused by the envelope he received in the mail from Adelphi University one afternoon in January. “Congratulations,” it read in yellow letters across the front.

“Congratulations for what?” the 20-year-old wondered. Schiro discovered the answer when he went to his room and opened the envelope: He was accepted to the Long Island school’s four-year undergraduate program.

“I’m feeling excited,” he said at his family home last week shortly after pre-registering for classes. The acceptance was a long time coming. Going away to a four-year college was a goal of Schiro’s when he graduated Stamford High School in 2015. But he wasn’t ready for the challenges of college, as is sometimes the case with recent graduates. Schiro is on the autism spectrum, making some of the social and emotional components of going away to college even more difficult. Schiro also wasn’t prepared for college-level academics. For most of high school, he was in mainstream classes with a paraprofessional. However, his individualized education program allowed him to turn in modified work, which wasn’t at the same level as his peers. This showed when no college accepted him when he applied his senior year. 

'A blessing’

However, there was hope. With the help of Sue Chandler, assistant director for special education at the secondary level for Stamford Public Schools, Schiro enrolled in the College Steps program, which provides transitional support in a college setting for students with learning and social challenges.

“It was a blessing College Steps came in,” Michael’s mother, Mary Schiro, said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better time for it to happen.” According to Chandler, Michael Schiro is the first student from Stamford to complete the College Steps program, which opened in 2015 at Norwalk Community College. The program now serves about 15 to 18 students at NCC each semester and is also offered at schools in Virginia, Vermont, Massachusetts and New York.

With April being Autism Awareness Month, Chandler said the district’s partnership with College Steps has opened the door for a multi-tiered support to help students on the spectrum with the academic and social potential go to college. For students who are a good fit for the program, the district can work closely with College Steps to create an individualized plan to help them succeed. “College Steps is a pretty comprehensive support service,” Chandler said. “Truly our partnership has allowed us to support the funding for College Steps and their comprehensive provisions for students.” Through College Steps, Michael Schiro was provided a peer mentor when he enrolled in classes at NCC in the fall of 2015.

The peer mentor is a student hired by College Steps to go to class with Schiro, help him through the work and teach him how to get academic support. The peer mentor also works with Schiro after class and helps increase his peer interaction. “That’s something we do very often for students, especially on the autism spectrum,” said Tim Pearson, program coordinator for College Steps at NCC. “They could have an array of challenges, but one being social. Absorbing the information is not a problem, learning can be tailored, but how you can navigate campus life, that’s where a peer mentor steps in.”

Dually enrolled

Although he takes three classes a semester at NCC, Schiro is still considered a Stamford Public Schools student since he is entitled to services from the district until he turns 21. The district has held onto his diploma, and in return, he is considered dually enrolled at Stamford schools and NCC so he can continue to receive services. Chandler helped develop an individualized college plan with College Steps, which set academic, social, emotional, independence and self advocacy goals for Schiro.

While Schiro’s family pays for his NCC classes, the district covers the cost for College Steps. The district also offers continued support in the form of adult education classes. For example, Schiro still sees a behaviorist with Stamford schools to help him with his social skills.

“In order to move from high school to post-secondary with mastery and success, it’s our responsibility to continue to support that student,” Chandler said. “College Steps has identified support for students like Michael who would not be able to navigate college socially and academically. The fact he had this opportunity to practice and have model support from peers, as well as professionals on campus and in district, allowed the safety net for Michael to help him across that hurdle.”

‘Wake-up call’

During his three years at NCC, College Steps pulled back Schiro’s support systems to prepare him for life away at college. Mary Schiro said she has seen her son grow during the past three years.

When he started, he didn’t know how to approach professors to ask for accommodations or accept criticism. “It was a wake-up call that first semester,” Mary Schiro said. “He was very frustrated. But he had to accept the struggle. He’s matured with College Steps. He’s realized it’s OK to ask for help. He needed these three years to mature.” At Adelphi, Michael Schiro will be part of the Bridges program, which will help him adjust to college life. 

Schiro plans to study computer science and credits he earned at NCC will allow him enough free time to schedule support services. In addition to his classes and adjusting to life with a roommate in a dorm, he also wants to play club baseball and join a film club on campus. “Any parent whose child is looking at college, College Steps taught Michael what it was like to do college-level work,” Mary Schiro said.

“I’m more secure he’ll succeed now than if he’d been accepted three years ago.” 

 

County College of Morris Information Session Set for April 21

(Randolph, NJ - April 9, 2018) — County College of Morris and College Steps announced today a partnership to enhance the college experience for area students living with disabilities, including but not limited to Autism Spectrum Disorders, Learning Disabilities and Developmental Disabilities.  The new initiative, which begins Fall 2018, directly aligns with the College’s mission to  provide excellence in teaching and lifelong learning through the delivery of exceptional programs and services that reflect a dedication to inclusiveness and diversity and educational advancement, as well as their commitment to building greater access, opportunity, and equity.

Dr. Bette Simmons, Vice President of Student Development & Enrollment Management at County College of Morris stated that “partnering with College Steps allows us to ensure that our students with disabilities have access to strong, comprehensive support systems that will allow them to increase their chances of success as well as encourage their participation and overall involvement in the entire academic experience."

County College of Morris becomes one of a dozen postsecondary institutions now partnering with College Steps, a nonprofit organization with operations stretching from Vermont to Virginia, which supports young adults living with social, communication, or learning challenges via a unique individualized and peer-based model. It serves both high school transition students interested in a pre-college experience prior to graduation, as well as students already enrolled in college. The organization’s primary goal is to prepare students for meaningful careers and autonomy after graduation, placing strong emphasis on self-advocacy, social competencies, employment, and independent living skills. Students work with trained peer mentors who are supported by a full-time, on-site Program Coordinator.

“We are very excited to be working with County College of Morris and the surrounding high schools in New Jersey,” noted Lauren Merritt, College Steps' Co-Founder. “Our efforts complement the existing work of County College of Morris and attract additional talented students interested in our model of support. We look forward to meeting new families, high schools, and community partners to collaboratively build sustainable and long-term options for transition-aged youth living with disabilities.”

Prospective students, parents, guardians, school district personnel, and advocates interested in learning more about this exciting new initiative are invited to attend a special information session on the County College of Morris campus on April 21st. Attendees will learn about specific services offered, including the individualized support model, admissions process and associated costs.

WHAT: College Steps / County College of Morris Information Session
WHEN: Saturday, April 21st from 3:00 - 4:30 PM
WHERE: Student Community Center Room -- SCC 221/233
PARKING: Lot 6 -- P6 on the Campus Map
REGISTER: Information Session at CCM


The priority application deadline for Fall 2018 enrollment with College Steps at County College of Morris is May 15, 2018. Additional information is available at www.CollegeSteps.org

Connecticut College Information Session Set for April 24 

(New London, CT - April 2, 2018) — Connecticut College and College Steps announced today a partnership to enhance the college experience for area students living with disabilities, including but not limited to Autism Spectrum Disorders, Learning Disabilities and Developmental Disabilities.  The new partnership, which will begin Fall 2018, directly aligns with the College’s mission to promote understanding by offering a variety of academic and social experiences, as well as their commitment to building greater access, opportunity and equity.

“On behalf of the College, we welcome this partnership and look forward to expanding our student body,” said Noel Garrett, Dean for Academic Support and Director of the Academic Resource Center (ARC) at Connecticut College. “The ARC at Connecticut College is for the entire College community and provides academic support services for all students so that they may reach their maximum academic potential. Although the primary goal is to assist students in becoming more efficient and effective learners, the ARC is available to all who wish to improve their academic skills and ability to learn. The addition of College Steps will help us carry this commitment even further.”

Connecticut College is the 10th post-secondary institution to partner with College Steps, a nonprofit organization with operations stretching from Vermont to Virginia, which supports young adults living with social, communication, or learning challenges via a unique individualized and peer-based model. It serves both high school transition students interested in a college-primer experience prior to graduation, as well as students already enrolled in college. The organization’s primary goal is to prepare students for meaningful careers and autonomy after graduation, placing  strong emphasis on self-advocacy, social competencies, employment, and independent living skills. Student’s work with trained peer mentors who are supported by a full-time, on-site Program Coordinator.

“We are very excited to be working with Connecticut College and the surrounding high schools in New London County,” noted Lauren Merritt, College Step’s Co-Founder. “Our efforts complement the existing work of Connecticut College and attract additional talented students interested in our model of support. We look forward to meeting new families, high schools, and community partners to collaboratively build sustainable and long-term options for transition-aged youth living with disabilities.”

Prospective students, parents, guardians, school district personnel, and advocates interested in learning more about this exciting new initiative, are invited to attend a special information session on the Connecticut College campus April 24. Attendees will learn about specific services offered, including the individualized support model, admissions process and associated costs.

WHAT: College Steps / Connecticut College Information Session

WHEN: Tuesday, April 24th from 4:30 - 6:00 PM

WHERE: Connecticut College Campus - Blaustein Room 210

PARKING: South Lot -- B3/C3 on the Campus Map

REGISTER: Information Session at Connecticut College

College Steps is now accepting applications for the Fall 2018 semester. Applications submitted before May 15 will be given priority. 

Mentor of the Month: Nabia

As a mentor in the College Steps program at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) - Loudoun campus, Nabia is known for her positive attitude. She is currently studying psychology and plans to transfer to Virginia Commonwealth University upon graduation from NVCC. Two of her personal strengths are organization and writing, which she uses generously to help others.

Nabia says that helping other students with things like note-taking, essay composition and general organization skills outside of the classroom has helped improve her own study habits.

When asked what she enjoys most about being mentor, Nabia says, “Watching the students improve and become better socially and academically over time and feeling like I have helped make a difference.”

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Michael's Story

Michael Schiro knew in his heart he was going to continue his studies beyond high school. He was interested in computer science and like many young people his age, had dreams of going to college. Because Michael is on the Autism Spectrum, his parents were hopeful but unsure. Throughout his elementary school years, Michael was a bright and curious student, but as he moved onto middle and high school, became easily frustrated and sometimes quick to anger.

While peers were receiving college acceptance letters, Michael’s story was taking a different turn. He applied to three colleges and interviewed with university staff in charge of coordinating accommodations for students with special needs. He was rejected by all of them.

“The modifications offered in K-12 were a double-edged sword,” said his mother, Mary. “He was capable of doing the work, but extremely disappointed by even the smallest ‘failure.’”

A New Direction

Discouraged but determined, Michael and his mother reached out to the Assistant Director of Special Education in their Stamford Connecticut school district. By law, Michael was entitled to educational services until the age of 21. What those services would look like, however, was an unknown. Determined to ensure Michael had a shot at an education that would lead to a stable and fulfilling career, Mary and the school administrator did some research and came across College Steps.

Together with Michael, his family, school officials and the College Steps staff, the team developed an Individualized College Plan (ICP) that would provide customized classroom support through a peer mentor-based model. The program allowed Michael to attend Norwalk Community College (NCC) while living at home. The goal was to help him work toward the behaviors, independence and academics needed to successfully transition from high school into a post-secondary education.

Michael began taking classes at NCC in the Fall of 2015 and was part of the first class of College Steps participants to set foot on campus. College Steps NCC Program Coordinator Tim Pearson oversaw the ICP and worked closely with Michael to ensure his needs and goals were met. Michael’s plan included eating lunch with peer mentors who also provided live coaching of classroom behavior and help interacting with professors. Michael also met regularly with Tim to review homework assignments and discuss any problems that may have arisen over the week.

"I feel like, joining this program turned out to be a huge step toward success in education,” Michael explained. “I've been dealing with difficult challenges each semester. I've been receiving a lot of support from my family, my mentors, and my private tutors for helping me with really hard homework, studying, vocabulary skills, and also I've been doing community group skills with the students who are in this program.”

Ready for More

When Michael informed Tim last fall that he had applied to a four year-program at Adelphi University in Long Island, Tim began “pulling back” on some of the supports in the ICP.  

“We met less frequently and Michael began attending class without a mentor,” recalls Tim. “He even took an online course without any review of his work or deadlines.”

When asked why he chose Adelphi, Michael explained, “Because I personally want to go to school in New York after over 20 years of education and support here in Connecticut. I also want to study computer science as my major, and I want to play college baseball.”   

Mary was again hopeful but cautious. Although she knew Michael had developed many new skills and independence, she wasn’t sure if the outcome would be different or lead to additional disappointment.

Last month, Michael received news that his dream was coming true. He was accepted to Adelphi. In the fall, Michael will live on campus with a roommate and participate in the school’s “Bridges” program, which offers academic and social support to students with learning and social challenges.

“Joining this Bridges program is a next step for students who need support,” Michael said.”I shall say that this is a perfect fit for me in order to become a successful student. But when anything gets hard, I’ll try to take things step-by-step in order to make things easy. It depends how well you develop the skills you've learned or haven't learned yet."

“I have waited 20 years for Michael to give me that hug,” Mary told the College Steps team after Michael informed her of the good news. “You can imagine how emotional we have all been. I’m sad to say this will be our final semester with the College Steps program, but know it will be another great one as we get him prepared for this huge transition for the fall.”

 

College Steps Student Starts Bowling Club at Castleton

The following story was published in Castleton University's student publication, the Castleton Spartan, on December 13, 2017.  It was written by Brigitta Gough with photo by Brigitta Gough.

 Brandon Farrell seeks a strike at Castleton Bowling Club practice on Nov. 16. Photo by Brigitta Gough. 

Brandon Farrell seeks a strike at Castleton Bowling Club practice on Nov. 16. Photo by Brigitta Gough. 

In the fall of 2016, Castleton STEPS student Brandon Farrell started the Bowling Club. He has been bowling since he was four years old and it shows. On Nov. 16 at one of the club’s practices, he got five strikes in a row in one game with a final score of 180 points.

That isn’t his highest score ever, though.

“I always like to challenge myself to see if I can get a higher score than I used to, like my high score now is a 276,” Farrell said.

He started competing at the age of six or seven years old and once his attempt to make a bowling club in high school did not succeed, he made it his mission to start one in college.

Patricia Moore, coordinator of the STEPS program that provides colege experience for those with developmental disabilities, asked Farrell what he liked to do in his free time and what clubs he wanted to join at Castleton when he came to the school in the fall of 2016. His immediate reply was he wanted to have a bowling club.

STEPS mentors, who also worked in Residence Life, suggested they contact Director of Residence Life, Michael Robilotto to start the club because he was interested in bowling as well.

“My initial response was ‘yes let’s do it, why not try something new because we had interest from students last year so we went ahead and did it,” Robilotto said.

He said the challenge was finding people to do it.

In their first meeting they had fewer than 10 students, but now the club as expanded to over ten. Last year when the club began they just bowled for fun. Now they are competing in tournaments in the USBC Collegiate League.

This year alone they have already competed in two tournaments and plan to compete in at least one more before the end of the semester.

The members of the club are supportive of each other. They high five each other after each person goes and they cheer each other on. For Farrell, this has helped him.

“From my perspective, this has been a truly amazing experience. I’ve seen so much growth in Farrell; in his self-esteem, being able to independently communicate with people about rides, getting together and stuff,” Moore said.

The captain of the bowling club Anissa Martin was thrilled to help start the club with Farrell. Bowling is a sport she loves and has been playing since she was two. Bowling runs in both Farrell and Martin’s families for generations.

Martin worked closely with Farrell to start the club and still relies on his input for its future.

“We’re still very close. I go to him for advice on what he wants to see come out of the club because he did found it and I feel like his decisions and his opinions are very important to my decisions,” Martin said.

Martin says that their goal is to have fun and support each other.

“I consider this a family,” Martin said.

Farrell is happy he started the club. It allows him to keep improving along with the three other leagues he competes in.

“He’s very dedicated to bowling, it’s very important to him,” Robilotto said.

One of the greatest parts of the club for Farrell is that it has allowed him to get out of his comfort zone and make friends.

“That’s where I met all my new friends I made this year, most of them, the majority of the friends I’ve made this year are through bowling club,” Farrell said.

Moore agrees that this has been one of the greatest parts of the club, she said that he wouldn’t have been able to communicate the way he does now a year ago.

“Bowling club has given him that confidence to reach out,” Moore said.

Student Story: Campus Newspaper

 

Below, Grace Wohlberg shares her experience participating in the Voice, Norwalk Community College's student publication.  Her story, "Finance Class Helps Students," was featured in their December 11, 2017 publication and is pictured below.

My name is Grace Wohlberg and I have been attending the College Steps Program at Norwalk Community College (NCC) for two years. College Steps has allowed me to pursue my passion for learning via their mentor and social integration programs .  I really enjoy reading and writing and I have focused on these interests by taking English classes.  I particularly enjoyed my journalism and public speaking classes.  I have met so many new people with interesting stories of their own.  I joined the school newspaper, the Voice, and have made new friends. The Voice allows me to learn about the different events  going on around the campus and I enjoy interviewing people as well.  All in all, College Steps has really enhanced my college experience and has given me the confidence to face new situations. 

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