Norwalk Community College

College Steps Grads Hear Words of Wisdom

May and June are graduation season - a time for caps, gowns and keynote speeches.  In the last several weeks, College Steps has seen many of its students transition to community colleges and four-year institutions, including Adelphi University, George Mason University, and Norwalk Community College. Others are entering the workforce in careers such as veterinary technology, hospitality and state government. And as a right of passage, most participated in commencement ceremonies where they received words of inspiration and encouragement.

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At Northern Vermont University - Lyndon Campus in Vermont May 20, students heard from 1986 alum and Weather Channel star Jim Cantore. Cantore shared fond memories of his time at Lyndon State and gave the graduates advice on how to overcome life’s obstacles while living meaningful and fullingful lives. “Find a mentor,” Cantore said. “Find someone who you admire and want to emulate.” Cantore said his mentor was John Hope, A.K.A. “The Grandfather of the Weather Channel” who passed away in 2012. Cantore called him, a “gentle, loving man that genuinely cared about people...seriously the most compassionate man I have ever seen in my life.”

Diversity was the theme of the commencement speech at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut May 18. President David Levinson began by noting that the school’s 818 graduates came from 41 different countries and spoke 26 languages. “We live in a world characterized, unfortunately, by seemingly unlimited acrimony. Yet, you, the graduating class of 2018, offer the world a promise of harmony and mutual support,” said Levinson.

At Northern Virginia Community College’s (NOVA) May 12 commencement ceremony, students heard from fellow graduates who overcame personal adversity. Brenda Medrano-Frias, an immigrant from Bolivia who served as student representative to the school's Board of Directors, said she felt “directionless and lost” before taking classes at NOVA. “Think about the people who helped to guide you. I always found myself surrounded by true mentors and role models,” she said.

While the speakers and speeches varied, most touched on the importance of community and connection to others. Here at College Steps, we are honored to be part of the community that helped each of this year’s graduates take the next step in their personal journey.

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.” 


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.”


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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Student Story: Art Classes and Off-Campus Outings


My name is Christopher Potter and I have been a student at College Steps-Norwalk Community College (NCC) for almost two years now. One of my goals for being a college student at College Steps is gaining experience in something new or that I haven't done before. I have had the chance to take several courses at NCC: English, Graphic Design I, 2D Design, Drawing I, Ceramics, and Digital Imaging: Adobe Photoshop. So far, my favorite course has been Ceramics-- I have been working with the same professor for two semesters now and have gotten to know her. I have been working on creating original plates, model houses, statues, and tiles. My favorite project so far was the plates project because it was interesting to transfer pictures on to the plates. 

Christopher's favorite ceramics project: transferring images onto plates. 

Christopher's favorite ceramics project: transferring images onto plates. 


My favorite part about being a College Steps student is hanging out with friends and peer mentors. Every Wednesday I also take the bus into the community with a Peer Mentor. I enjoy being able to pick a place, plan out my trip, an then go with a peer mentor on the bus. I feel like I have gained independence from using the bus- by purchasing/using a ticket, planning my trips, learning bus routes. I have traveled to the following places on the bus; Matthews Park, local cafes, the Norwalk Public Library, and local museums/galleries.

Christopher on a trip out in the community to the Norwalk Public Library. 

Christopher on a trip out in the community to the Norwalk Public Library. 


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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