Columbus State University GOALS Program

Taylor Baker, Rachel Johnston, Chandler McGuire (current students), Shawna Johnson (graduate), Rebekah Tucker (program coordinator), Hannah McKay, Julie Wilson, and Jenna Gaskins (peer mentors), Teja Reddy (grad assistant), Sydni (Chandler’s assistant)

Columbus, Georgia (Senate District 15)

As the toddlers at Cribs N' Cradles day care center lay quietly under blankets on the floor, some of them squirming as they wrestle with young energy and the sheer notion of naptime, Shawna Johnson, 24, steps out into the lobby. Shawna, who has a mild intellectual/developmental disability (I/DD), has been at her job for a little more than a year. On a typical day, she helps the children eat breakfast, play outside and have snacks before moving into constructive play and learning activities. She helps them with ABCs and learning puzzles. She especially loves reading books to the children. What’s her favorite thing about working here? “Just to do my best.”

When Shawna was a student in Columbus State University’s Guidance and Opportunities for Academic Leadership and Success (GOALS) program, she took classes that helped her get the professional experience she needed. GOALS is one of several Inclusive Post-Secondary Education (IPSE) programs across the state of Georgia. GOALS is a two-year certificate program that provides a college experience for individuals with I/DD. When Shawna was a student, she took many helpful classes, like her technical literacy course, which taught her how to look stuff up online and report back. She also took a life skills class, covering how to use money wisely, count money, not to pay too much for something and other skills. Shawna got an internship while she was still in school at Columbus State's Center for Assessment & Reading Education. She also had other practicum experiences, which helped her get out into local public schools. Ultimately, it’s how she landed her job at this day care, where she feels engaged and successful. (Story continues below after slideshow.)

Shawna’s mom first learned about GOALS because a woman with the board of education connected them. She helped Shawna believe in herself. Shawna’s mom says that some people at administrative levels pushed Shawna to stay home and just receive an assistance check, especially because she is eligible through her father’s benefits. “But she would never be happy doing that,” says her mom.

Like the students who are currently in the GOALS program, Shawna had peer mentors. Peer mentors, a feature of all IPSE programs in Georgia, are paid positions by neurotypical students who are in the same classes with IPSE students. They serve in a variety of capacities, from taking notes to providing emotional support and friendship. Shawna is still friends with some of the people with whom she went to school. They check in with her and invite her to go to events. Likewise, the students who are currently a part of the GOALS program enjoy co-working and fellowship with their peer mentors.

Taylor Baker is a young man with autism from Muscogee County in his second year at GOALS. He prefers not to share his exact age. Since Taylor is from Columbus, he’s proud to have learned to ride the shuttle on campus as part of his program. “It took some learning,” says Taylor. So far, he’s studied comic book making, animation and 3D art through the program. As he is nearing the end of his semester in animation, Taylor reports that he enjoyed studying with the animation professor but felt like he bit off a little more than he could chew. In animation, he’s learned the importance of exaggerating features when creating characters: “squash and stretch,” he calls it. Still, animation may not be for him; he wants to study comics. Taylor walks through his portfolio of drawings, all original characters. He’s been developing them since he got out of high school in 2011, including Jam, inspired by Sonic the Hedgehog, who is a marten, a weasel-like creature, and a speed runner like The Flash. 

On this bright, beautiful day in late spring, Taylor is hanging out at Fountain City Coffee Shop with Rachel Johnston, a fellow student in GOALS. Rachel, 20, is also accompanied by her service dog, Dakota, who helps her flow through life more easily. Rachel has autism, as well as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and a mood disorder. She says the people in GOALS are the first friends she’s had because she’s been bullied her whole life. “Having these people see me for who I am is the best thing that’s ever happened,” says Rachel. “Everybody who’s been bullied should not lose hope because there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

The two students are also surrounded by other members of the GOALS team. Hannah McKay is a peer mentor studying special education. She was involved in the school's Best Buddies program her freshman year, and she was then recruited to GOALS by a professor. Eventually, Hannah will go to graduate school, but she just really wants to lead a middle or high school special education classroom because she feels like being a part of an IPSE program has helped her gain insight into what’s needed during the high school transition.

Hannah says the participants in GOALS are a close-knit group. They can rely on each other, like a mini family on campus. They have a group electronic message board for staying in touch, as well as a physical space, the GOALS office, where they gather and talk. “It’s kind of like a quiet, little central hub,” says Rebekah Tucker, program coordinator. “Yeah, it’s kind of just a space where we can go there if we need some place to work on our work or talk,” says Rachel. “It’s actually rare that we’re all there at the same time though.” “Busy, busy, busy!” Taylor chimes in, as if he were his own cartoon character.

Taylor likes to hang out with his peer mentor, Jenna Gaskins, who is studying Psychology. They do homework and study together. They also socialize, sometimes watching anime or playing video games. Hannah and Rachel hang out a lot because they take similar courses. Rachel takes Concepts of Fitness, and the two have enjoyed supporting each other most days when they’re working out. On the second day of class, Rachel asked Hannah to work with her on exercises such as partner planks, where they had to high five. “It was very fun,” says Hannah. “We laughed the whole time.” They also had to pass the medicine ball to each other while sitting back-to-back. Rachel says she’s gotten more independent thanks to Hannah. They’ve learned how to not get injured on equipment and how important it is to wear the right shoes. Rachel doesn’t usually wear tennis shoes. She wears cowboy boots most of the time because she loves to ride horses, which informs her fashion choices.

Rachel, who lives an hour away in Moreland, Georgia, gets to school every day with the help of her mother. Rachel’s mom has an online job, so she finds space on campus to work while Rachel goes to school. Rachel’s dog is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to her love of and connection to animals. She has many horses at home: Flicka, Dusty, Traveler, Shakira and Beau. Rachel thinks she might want to move to Florida and work with dolphins one day. 

Almost as if on cue, Dakota, Rachel’s service animal, decides to interject. Everyone connected to GOALS feels like Dakota is somewhere between their mascot and another student in the program. Although Hannah was not a dog person before Dakota came into her life, he’s helping to change her mind and winning her over. Dakota is trained for alleviating ADHD, anxiety and depression. In times when Rachel gets too stressed, she can potentially do anything from stress out to pass out. Dakota helps Rachel to regulate herself. He’s trained to alert her when her panic is rising, so she will remove herself from the situation. Dakota’s signal to Rachel is to paw at her leg.

Sitting on a city street outside the coffee shop, another dog comes walking by, which distracts both Dakota and Rachel. They have to walk away for a few minutes. As Dakota and Rachel re-approach the group, Taylor proposes a new seating configuration, one where Dakota is more protected, removed from other dogs that might come by. Everyone in the group takes a moment to praise Taylor for thinking that through.

As a group, they recently participated in Diversity Week. Taylor makes sure to qualify it as Pride Week instead, stating with clarity that he came out as asexual. They also went on a field trip to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. “It was rough,” Taylor says, "because we had to face some harsh realities.” Although Taylor doesn’t really enjoy traveling, he appreciated that he was allowed to sit in his own seat, away from everyone else, and play with his Nintendo 3DS. He and Rachel toured the Columbus Museum together last semester, which features ceramics and blown glass. Perhaps one of their most fun group adventures was when they caroled at the children's ward of an area hospital and took gifts to the kids.

Also in the group is Teja, a graduate assistant studying computer science who is supporting GOALS this year. Teja makes newsletters, brochures and the GOALS website, and he also coordinates volunteers and helps with research. “As a computer major,” Teja says, “I love applying my professional experience by doing things like their website.” Teja feels his program of study can be isolating. He really loves the program because it’s so social, and it helps him make connections he wouldn’t otherwise. Teja had experience working with people with I/DD back in India as well. He feels that the IPSE program’s goal of full inclusion is remarkable because, where he is from, people have less support structures to be out in their community and tend to stay at home with their families. 

If given a chance to speak to her legislator, Rachel would say, “This program is everything to me. I would be nowhere without this opportunity.” She goes on to say, “This is the best program I have ever been in. I love all of the people who are involved.” Rachel has become very committed to advocacy on behalf of IPSE programs and people like her, and she was excited to participate in Advocacy Day at the state’s Capitol. Julie Wilson, another peer mentor, shares a story about going to a high school transition fair to promote GOALS. A mom of a student with I/DD broke down into tears because she thought there was nothing for her son to do after he graduated. “Programs like this really do make a huge impact on people,” says Julie. “It gives them a huge opportunity. It makes what you’re doing mean something, and it’s making a difference in the world.”

Rebekah chimes in that this is the way that all transition fairs go. There’s an advantage in that these programs allow students to specialize in their interest area. “Parents are so worried about what comes next,” says Rebekah. “It builds students into the highly structured network of a college. It really gives them the opportunity to do what they need. What they need to experience in order to be a viable job candidate. What they want to do. Parents are just amazed that they have options. College is a great time to practice.” In fact, most graduates of IPSE programs do not wind up having to rely on other programs like Medicaid waivers because they are able to earn a good wage and live independently.

Rebekah has developed a full philosophy about how natural IPSE programs are and how they model the world we want: “Most students in public education are used to inclusion, so why not continue it into college?” She goes on to talk about the fact that we don’t always get to choose who we work with, nor do we generally choose the tasks we do. “College is a pretty nice way to practice working with people who are different. It’s preparation for everyone, regardless of whether they have a disability. Outside of school, you often work with people who think, work differently from you—have a different perspective on how things should be done.” Why not start that training early?

* * * * * *

Later in the fall semester, the dropping leaves have revealed some important changes at GOALS, and for its participants.

Of note, there’s a new student, Chandler McGuire, who has a visual impairment and cerebral palsy. Chandler was born premature at 24-25 weeks, and though she was a twin, her twin brother passed away not long after they were born. Chandler has an assistant, Sydni Acevedo, who has worked with her for five years, since Chandler was in high school. She helps Chandler navigate the world and become more independent in her life skills. Chandler is studying public speaking and life skills. She appreciates that she is asked about the nature of her disability because not everyone is brave enough to have that conversation with her. She wishes more people would just talk about their curiosity.

Rachel’s family have moved closer to Columbus so that they can reduce the long commute. It’s helped a lot. Sadly, one of her oldest and most dearly loved horses, Dusty, passed away over the summer, as did her family’s dog. Rachel is continuing her pursuit of a general studies degree, including public speaking, interview skills and career planning. She wants to use the skills she’s taking on to be able to speak eloquently in public about horses and service animals, as well as how her love of animals has helped transform her intense anxiety into interacting with people every day.

Taylor is much happier in his courses this semester, particularly narrative illustration, which challenged him to draw a six-page minimum comic. Taylor reports he’s putting finishing touches on the 17th and final page for his assignment. “Oh boy, have I got a whale of a tale to share,” he says, launching into a description of his sci-fi graphic novel, in which he ignored the professor’s advice to avoid "epic story syndrome."  Taylor also shares an update on how one of his central characters has evolved: “A lot has changed with Jam. His full name is Cooljam Starspeed, and he's a two-toed sloth-bat. He still retains Sonic's personality and Flash's powers, though.” Taylor now has an internship at the Columbus Museum, where he used to go all the time as a child. He helps to set up and lead children’s events, especially when they have art-making and crafts activities. 

It’s a quiet Friday afternoon; autumn’s chill is starting to win out over warmth. Students are quietly working away at a nearby computer lab, while the GOALS students gather in the lobby of the library to talk about their weekend plans. A friendly, work-study student who has extra food from the building’s café comes by with cups of fruit and muffins to share. Like most college students, free food is about the best thing to happen all day. GOALS participants—students, peer mentors, assistants and staff—shout their excitement with delight and celebrate their good fortune. Their joy is only slightly tampered by a shushing librarian who comes by and asks them to pipe down in so many words. It’s Friday. There’s free food. They are on campus together, included in campus life but with a distinct sense of community.

Goal achieved.

Writer: Shannon Turner, Photographer: Haylee Fucini-Lenkey

Copyright © 2019 Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities. All Rights Reserved.
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