The new Diverse Scholars program, which allows high school students with special needs from surrounding districts to audit FSU classes, launched this semester, according to Associate Dean of Academic Success LaDonna Bridges.
Students who audit classes do not receive course credit and are not considered matriculated students.
There are currently only two students enrolled in the program, said Bridges, but once the program is up and running, FSU will choose 12-15 students from nearby school districts to participate.
Bridges said the program is intended for students between the ages of 18-22 with intellectual disabilities – some who will never graduate high school because they cannot pass the MCAS standardized test and some who may graduate after attempting the MCAS multiple times with assistance.
Susan Dargan, dean of Social and Behavioral Sciences, said the program was initiated by Massachusetts State Representative Tom Sannicandro, who spearheaded a movement to bring special-needs students to college campuses in order for them to socialize with peers of their age group.
FSU received a $77,000 grant from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Education in order to fund the program, said Bridges, adding FSU has already hired Grace McDonald to serve as the program coordinator.
She said the state funding for the program only lasts for five years, after which FSU will have to support the program on its own.
The school districts will be responsible for transportation of the students, as well as educational aides if needed, according to Bridges.
Bridges said FSU is “late to the party” in terms of inclusive enrollment. Many universities and colleges have had similar programs in place for as long as five years.
According to Dargan, Linda Vaden-Goad, provost and vice president for academic affairs, and Bridges accompanied her on a trip to Western Connecticut State University last year to learn more about a similar program the university runs.
Dargan said FSU’s model for the program would be “a little bit more inclusive in terms of accepting a wider array of students,” adding while some students will be high-functioning, there will be some who need assistance.
The students will audit one general education course, work at an on-campus “internship,” eat lunch in the Dining Commons and participate in student clubs.
The internship, according to Bridges, is not for credit, nor are the students paid. It is an “opportunity” for them to gain work experience.
She added FSU will examine the students’ goals and aspirations in order to place them in the best courses and “experiences” available.
“It’s much, much less about what they do academically, and far more about their socialization,” said Bridges.
Because the students are non-matriculated and are strictly auditing the classes, the extent of coursework they complete is up to them, according to Bridges.
“We have to be careful not to say what we think is a good experience for them, but to let them help guide us in what is a good experience for them,” she said.
English Professor Alexander Hartwiger currently has two students enrolled in his Intro to Global Studies class. He said being involved with the program has prompted him to “reimagine my own pedagogical approaches to inclusivity,” which has helped him grow as a teacher.
The goal of every teacher, said Hartwiger, should be to create a classroom environment in which every student feels involved and included.
He added this program is a great opportunity for professors to continue to develop professionally, and he “welcomed” the chance to participate.
Jake Kelly, one of students currently enrolled in the program, said his favorite part of attending FSU is going to Hartwiger’s class, and “learning new things about globalization.”
Charles Cordero, another student enrolled in the program, said he enjoyed learning about sweatshops in the class, and where Nike is made.
Freshman Olivia Warila said the program “will bring more diversity to our campus.”
She added the program “shows that our school is really accepting.”
Adam Scanlon, a freshman, said the new program is “a wonderful opportunity to create a more inclusive environment and it showcases people from all walks of life in an environment where people can be pushed to succeed.”
Senior Mackenzi McNealy said she believes the program will “benefit” FSU and the students who “might not otherwise have a chance to go to college.”
Lauren Cohen, a freshman, said, “I think it will bring a lot of attention to the campus and people will appreciate their education more.”
Bridges said a “rewarding” point in creating the program was the day the first two students enrolled – Kelly and Cordero – obtained their student I.D.s.
She said sometimes “you get caught up in the work,” and their excitement for their I.D.s was a “reminder of why we’re doing this.
“You’re taking students who never thought they could ever have a chance of stepping on a college campus as a student and giving them the opportunity to be here.”