Following the North Star
Pooler, Georgia (Senate District 4)
Doug is nervous. He has an exam in IT Infrastructure this afternoon. The midterm, a few weeks ago, was tough. How nervous is he? “Well, I’d say, just confident enough,” here assures himself, and his audience.
Doug Herron is a twenty-five-year old student at Georgia Southern’s EAGLE (Equal Access to Gainful Learning and Employment) Academy, one of the state’s nine Inclusive Post-Secondary Education (IPSE) programs. These two-year certificate(non-degree seeking) programs afford people with intellectual disabilities the ability to fully participate in college life while training for their chosen profession. Only a few years old at this point, the EAGLE Academy program is striving to increase its enrollment, onboarding a few more students annually with an ultimate goal to support ten first-year and ten second-year students every academic year. Doug is in his second year, which means he will graduate in May.
Doug, who has autism and has had a fascination for all things tech for as long as he can remember, is studying internet technology and cybersecurity. Previously working at FedEx, scanning and stacking packages, he took a break for a few years between high school and college. He’s very much enjoying college life, not only his classes, but also his internship with Allen Harkleroad, Customer Relationship Analyst for IT Services on campus.“Mr. Allen” (as Doug calls him) supports Doug as he works to replace hard drives, both MAC and PC, along with other technology upgrades and fixes for the entire College of Education. Allen says Doug is very proficient at his job and even keeps the printer at the college’s public kiosk serviced. (Story continues below after slideshow.)
EAGLE Academy meets students where they’re at, supporting them in whatever major they want for their identified professional goals. As such, Doug is the first student who was interested in internet technology and cybersecurity. He’s the first IPSE student Allen has supervised in an internship, but he’s very impressed. Not only does Doug work in this office, but he also goes to another lab, where. Allen says, “He helps test forms they’ve created to make sure they don't break. If there's a problem, he's actually found some things in the code from going through and testing it that they needed to fix before they rolled it out. So he’s very instrumental.”
A couple hours before his exam, Doug is hanging out at the Lakeside Dining Hall with fellow EAGLE Academy students, Brian and Dale. They cut up with their peer mentors who have joined them for lunch. (Peer Mentors are neurotypical students who work with IPSE students in a variety of capacities from tutoring to mentorship to socializing and friendship. These students are compensated with work-study or internship credit, or they volunteer.) Unfortunately, today, all the peer mentors have an exam at 1 p.m. and have to dash out the door with a round of friendly, happy goodbyes. Doug, Dale, and Brian are left to chat with each other over the meal’s remains. Brian looks down at the uneaten salad that’s been shoved to the center. “That was not ranch dressing. It tasted like bleu cheese. Yech.” The other two young men agree, having tried and rejected the dressing. “It probably just got labeled wrong.” Making up for the disappointing and unexpected flavor, they enjoy their desserts of cookies and cake. College dining hall food really is living the life. The life, by turns, of unpredictability and indulgence, that is.
The three students begin the trek from the dining hall back across campus, where they hang out for a while in the EAGLE Academy’s home base, a well-appointed office featuring both work tables and couches for lounging. Nick Roshkind, Director of the IPSE program, says that students often hang out here between classes. Additionally, because they all have extended time to take tests, he and other staff proctor their exams here, which means this is where Doug will be taking his exam in about an hour.
Nick explains that students’ educational experience is shaped by interval meetings under a person-center planning system called STAR. Rather like an IEP for primary and secondary education students, STAR meetings evaluate and set goals for each individual’s five points: community engagement, academic enrichment, independent living skills, employment, and self-determination. “With that meeting,” Nick says, “we invite their families to come. Friends, supporters, anyone who wants to help out. We make that a special hour for our students. ”Each meeting looks at where the student currently is on each part of their goals and then establishes both short- and long-term goals for these identified areas. Similar to other systems like PATH, MAPS, and Circles of Support, this process becomes the “north star” for the student’s journey through EAGLEAcademy.
Students live in an enclave of housing called the EAGLE Village. However, because many are not far from home, they go home on some weekends, just depending on what they’ve got going on academically and socially. Doug, whose family is only half an hour away, says he goes home every few weeks when his family are able to come get him. He went home a couple weekends ago because just needed to take a break, play video games, and enjoy some home cooking after the hectic week of midterms.
When asked what’s one thing Doug wants people to know about his life, he says, “Well, it goes something like this: If you have experienced what you have, what you do, you just have to try, just try and give it your all. Give all you have in order to become yourself.” Doug’s ultimate goal is to one day work at NASA. When asked what makes him want to work there, he says, “Well, to be frank, I’m always following that big star.” It’s not clear if he’s referring to the periodic meetings that help him work toward his goals or if he literally means looking at the stars. Either way works, really.
Writer: Shannon Turner, Photographer: Marsha Hagan