(Originally posted on The Sojourn’s website on February 23, 2015)
Anna Aukerman (sr) had the opportunity to work with Marion High School students with special needs and see them graduate last year for her practicum.
Now, she still gets to work with them as an education assistant for Marion High School through a partnership between Indiana Wesleyan University and MHS called Giant Wildcat Academy.
GWA is a transition program for students with disabilities, ages 18-25. The two-year program is designed to make the transition from high school into adulthood easier. This is the second semester the program has been around, and about 30 IWU students help the five MHS graduates.
The GWA students are required to have a job, such as wiping the tables in the piazza, and also take one class per semester. Last semester they took a physical education class, and this semester Dr. Sarah Jones, assistant education professor, designed a class just for them to take twice a week for one hour that teaches them life skills.
Six IWU students work with the GWA students in the classroom, and the other mentors spend time with them for at least one hour each week outside of the classroom. Laurie Marx (sr) mentors a 19-year-old student named Jesse Browning who has high-functioning autism.
Last semester, they played tennis together, and she invites him and his mother to her church events.
“Basically what we do is we go alongside [of] them,” Marx said. “They get to be with different people and learn how to interact and be social.”
Marx participated in the “Read My Lips” event last November and asked Browning to perform with her because she knew he liked music. She said he is “a lot of fun; he likes to do different things.”
Aukerman says the first semester was rough because “nobody knew what to expect, and we were having issues having professors allow us to integrate our students into the classroom.” She said professors are just “not aware enough about the program.”
“We are willing to talk to anybody … and say, ‘We’ll modify the program or the content ourselves if you let our students integrate into the classroom,’” Aukerman said.
After the two years are over, the students will receive a certification of completion, and some of them will go to college. All of the students are also getting assistance from Vocational Rehabilitation Services, so even after the program is over, they can qualify to have a counselor work with them to find a job and to help them keep it as well.
Aukerman says working in this program has been “life-changing.”
“It’s wonderful to see how many steps they have taken in their lives just in the two semesters they have been here on campus,” she said. “I think these mentors have really made a difference, in not even ways that they know. … They don’t understand how much of an impact they have made with these students.”