By Donna Cornelius
Going to classes, living in dorm rooms and heading out with friends for late-night snacks are everyday parts of college life for many young adults. But for those with intellectual disabilities, these kinds of activities often aren’t the norm.
A new program at the University of Alabama is changing that.
CrossingPoints, a student transition program on the UA campus in Tuscaloosa, held its first Summer Bridge Program in June and July. The eight-week session aims to give students with intellectual disabilities a well-rounded experience in college life.
Amy Williamson, CrossingPoints coordinator, said 11 students participated in the summer program. They attended classes, lived in a UA dorm and learned independent living skills.
“The idea behind the program is to pipeline students into higher education,” Williamson said.
The Summer Bridge Program is one of CrossingPoints’ two components and also is known as Tier 2. CrossingPoints started the new program with the help of a $2.5 million federal grant, which it was awarded last year.
The Tier 1 program, which runs with the academic year, has been in place since 2001. It’s a collaboration between the university, Tuscaloosa City Schools and the Tuscaloosa County School System.
Tier 1 participants must be 18 to 21 years old. Through the program, they learn employment, independent living and social skills.
“These students are young adults with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities,” Williamson said.
Right now, Tier 1 is open only to students in the Tuscaloosa city and county school systems. But the Summer Bridge Program doesn’t have that restriction.
“Our students this year came from all over Alabama, and we even had one from Ohio,” Williamson said.
Participants take some CrossingPoints-specific courses and also can select up to two UA courses.
The summer program students lived at Lakeside East, a UA dorm.
“The rooms there are set up as quad rooms, with four bedrooms,” Williamson said. “The students shared a bathroom, kitchen and living room.”
She said a graduate student studying special education is on site as a resident adviser. Other college students work as mentors.
“The mentors’ role was more as friends and partners,” Williamson said. “They weren’t there to teach our students but to come in and cook with them, ride the bus with them and help them get to know the campus.”
Summer Bridge Program participants must be at least 18 years old and finished with high school. While the Tier 1 program is free, there’s a cost for Tier 2 that pays for student housing, Williamson said.
One of the young adults at this summer’s session plans to enroll at Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa, and another is set to enter Kent State University’s certified transition program, Williamson said.
While getting to attend college classes is an important part of the program, the students also got to experience the lighter side of college life.
“One night, the students and mentors called 348-RIDE to get a bus and went to have midnight sushi at Surin,” Williamson said.
For more information, visit www.crossingpoints.ua.edu. An application for the Summer Bridge Program will be posted on the site in October. Interviews for prospective students will be held in January and February.
A Father Speaks
One of the participants in CrossingPoints’ first Summer Bridge Program was Trotter “Trot” Cobb, a 20-year-old Mountain Brook resident. His father shared the story of his son’s experiences there -- and his own feelings of gratitude for the program and pride in his son.
Exceptional Training, Simple Pleasures
By Trotter Cobb
How could spaghetti make me the happiest dad in the world?
All it took was a few FaceTime minutes with my son.
You see, my son and namesake, Trotter, who my wife and I call Trot, is in the midst of an amazing program at the University of Alabama known as CrossingPoints. It’s for young adults, such as Trot, who have special needs and who are in their late teens and early 20s. The purpose is to give them the skills and guidance they need to begin functioning as semi-independent adults.
Trot didn’t know how to FaceTime before the program. Now he has learned. And gosh, does he FaceTime me – and I light up every time I see his incoming call.
“I cooked spaghetti for dinner last night and it was so yummmmmy!” he exclaimed in his exuberance, as I watched his wonderful face beaming through my iPhone. “I want to cook dinner for Mom when I get home,” he told me.
“She’ll love it,” I said.
“Will you help me?” he asked.
“You bet I will. I will be your assistant,” I promised.
“Thanks Dad!” he responded, as excited as can be.
Trot making spaghetti, his favorite food, is something I never could have imagined before the CrossingPoints program. Nor could I have imagined him going away for most of the summer, thriving and meeting new friends who, already, have brought him to a new level of happiness, confidence and maturity. Like his suite-mate Bobby.
Bobby’s not his real name, I’ve changed it here to protect his privacy. But this kid, also special needs, has been a big boost for Trot and our family. He’s a little older than Trot and, you can sense, very protective of my son. He likes to tell us how well Trot is doing.
My wife, Anne, has become friends with his grandmother and they chat all the time. They were talking on the phone the other day. She told Anne what Bobby said to her about Trot: “He’s my best friend, and he’s cool.”
The next time Anne and I talked to Trot, we told him what his suite-mate had said about him. “He’s my best friend,” answered Trot.
One of the things we’re trying to do as parents is to teach Trot to be more specific, so I followed that up with, “Now, who is your best friend?” – of course, knowing the answer. “Hold on…wait, wait,” Trot said, turning to his suite-mate to ask him, “What’s your name?”
These moments remind us that within this young man’s body – Trot’s 20 now – resides the mind of a 7-year-old, limited by several special needs syndromes. This is why helping to navigate a new path for our son is so challenging right now – and rewarding. Never did we imagine that he could go off by himself for nearly two months and function so well.
He’s got another suite-mate who I will call Allen. Allen is facing some tough special needs challenges. But he is a happy guy and has had a smile on his face whenever we have been with him. Sometimes he gets on FaceTime with Trot and starts talking to us. I can’t always understand what Allen is saying. It doesn’t matter; I can hear his enthusiasm. I love talking to him. He’s a happy fellow.
Other FaceTime exchanges with Trot have been as uplifting as our spaghetti conversation. “Guess what, Dad! We went swimming. Everybody clapped for me. I climbed the ladder to the top of the water slide.”
And then there was our chat with Trot about him having gone bowling. He’s always loved bowling and has won a local Special Olympics gold medal. So bowling is something my wife and I have encouraged. His conversation from the CrossingPoints program, of course, was exactly what he tells us every time he goes bowling. He always gets two spares and a strike or two strikes and a spare. It never changes.
Each time he sounds as excited, as if he were telling us for the first time. We sound as excited as if we were hearing it for the first time.
One of the challenges of being the parent of a special needs son is that you don’t receive the same cues – and clues – from your child that other parents do. Sometimes it’s as if Trot speaks to us in code, a code that can be challenging to decipher. Each time he’s FaceTimed us from the CrossingPoints program, I’ve asked myself these questions as our talks have concluded: Does he miss us? Does he want to come home? Would he actually be happier in a group setting?
What I do know is that the nearly two months he has been away have begun to ease my concern about whether Trot will be able to manage once Anne and I are no longer here.
Answers to these questions and others will come in the future.
For now, I’m looking forward to making spaghetti.
For more from Trotter Cobb, visit his blog trottercobb.com.