When Ashley McLeod heard her name called at a graduation ceremony this month at Harper College, she jumped out of her seat and practically skipped up to receive her certificate.
Her exuberance seemed to capture the excitement of this historic day.
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McLeod was one of the first 14 graduates of Harper's new Career Skills Institute program, which began two years ago to help students with mild cognitive disabilities assess and strengthen their employability skills and develop a realistic career plan.
"I loved it," said McLeod, who has Down syndrome and lives in St. Charles.
Like her classmates, McLeod applied for the program after aging out of her public high school, St. Charles East.
While she participates in activities outside of school -- she performed in "Guys and Dolls" last month through the Schaumburg-based UPS for DownS and trains with its Walking Club for the Rock 'n' Roll 5K mini marathon in July -- her parents knew she was capable of more.
As part of Harper's two-year plan, McLeod took basic general education courses her first year -- including computer technology, mathematics, reading and writing -- before concentrating on career exploration and a vocational experience during her second year.
Each student was placed in an internship on campus, and McLeod spent her last semester working in the college cafeteria.
"It was perfect," McLeod said. "I got to meet new people and I love being around food."
McLeod already worked at the local Jewel Food Store in St. Charles, but after her experience at Harper, her teachers hope she will advocate for herself and move from bagging, where she works now, into the food prep area of the store, perhaps in the bakery.
Another graduate, Shailen Amin, 19, of Schaumburg, learned he had landed a job on the day of the graduation. He has started work as a porter at Schaumburg Honda, where he will be moving cars on the lot, and working with sales and service associates.
Michael Bates, associate dean for Harper's Center for Adjunct Faculty Engagement, supervised Amin during his internship on campus, where he helped with data entry, scanning and filing.
"We really wanted to provide him with some meaningful work experience," Bates said, "but he gave us even more than that. He was just a ray of sunshine."
Kenneth Ender, Harper president, personally awarded each graduate their "certificate of success."
He said a group of Northwest suburban parents had approached Harper officials three years ago to ask about putting together a program for their children once they had aged out of the public school system.
"We had lots of reasons why we couldn't," Ender said, pointing to space, staff and creating new programming, for starters. "But then I thought about why we should. And I'm looking at those reasons right now.
"I'm looking at the trailblazers," he added. "You are the first, and you make it possible for hundreds of young people who come after you. You showed us just what mature young people can do."