Have You Heard About ADVANCE?



ADVANCE is an exciting new partnership between Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and George Mason University (Mason) that gives NOVA students targeted, personalized support to complete their bachelor's degrees in a timely manner and save money.

Who Is Eligible?

ADVANCE is available to all new and current NOVA students with 0-30 degree applicable credits earned, who plan to transfer to Mason to pursue a bachelor’s degree in any of the programs offered.

What Programs Are Offered?

ADVANCE offers degrees in some of the most in-demand fields in the Northern Virginia region, filling critical workforce needs and preparing you for success in your career.

Learn more by clicking here.

Poise Under Pressure

Screen Shot 2018-06-11 at 4.31.44 PM.png

Jack Clark is a first-year student at Johnson State College in Northern Vermont. He is passionate about sports and is currently taking classes in sports management.

For several years, Jack has served as an announcer at high school hockey games, and this past year launched his own sports talk show on the campus radio station 90.7 WJSC.

But a couple of weeks ago, Jack’s producer had to cancel on him at the last minute. Determined to get his show on the air, Jack reached out to College Steps peer mentors Erik and Ally who were happy to come manage the soundboard while he hosted the show.

Great work under pressure Jack, and thank you to Erik and Ally. To check out Jack's sports blog visit: https://blog2614.wixsite.com/jackclark

Mentor of the Month: Ali El-Araby

Meet Ali El-Araby, our College Steps May/June Mentor of the Month.  Originally from Buffalo, New York, Ali recently graduated from Northern Virginia Community College and will continue his education at the University of Virginia this fall where he will study kinesiology.

College Steps Program Coordinator, Taylor Bryant, was eager to nominate Ali for this recognition, noting his professionalism. “Ali always pays great attention to detail. All of his mentor journals are turned in on time and are very well written, and he is one of the first mentors to step up if I need help covering a shift,” says Taylor.

She also noted Ali put in extra time at the end of the semester with a mentee who needed support preparing her psychology paper and studying for her final.

When asked what he most enjoyed about being a mentor, Ali says it was seeing his fellow students grow and develop both socially and academically.

"What stood out to me working with the students is the amazing transformation in character and performance that they showed as the year progressed,” he explained. “Some students were extremely shy, reserved, and seemingly overwhelmed at the start of the academic year. Others had it in them to perform well academically, but they never had the right tools to achieve that. It was heartwarming to see them get the results they put the effort for, and it's a real pleasure that they are now our friends for life. Being part of College Steps was an experience unparalleled by any other."

Thank you, Ali for going above and beyond to help your fellow students and mentors. We wish you all the best in your future endeavors.


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.

#3 Photo May 20, 11 06 21 AM.jpg


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 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.

CT College.jpg

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