College of DuPage COACH program graduates first cohort
After Joan Mancini's daughter Julie completed the Vocational Skills courses at College of DuPage, she was unsure what Julie's next step would be. Longer-term college programs for developmentally disabled adults in DuPage County were expensive and Julie had exhausted all of her options at the Glen Ellyn college.
Developmental delays put her in a population of students that few colleges serve: those with intellectual disabilities.
Then, with perfect timing, according to Mancini, COD launched COACH (Career Opportunities and ACHievement) in the fall of 2017 to increase education, vocational and socialization opportunities for developmentally disabled students in DuPage County.
Offered through COD's Continuing Education program, the two-year, application-based program targets adults with mild intellectual or developmental disabilities. It also provides post high school transition students with additional educational training aimed at preparing them for meaningful employment.
On May 15, students from the college's first cohort of COACH graduated at an emotional ceremony celebrating each of the students' perseverance, tenacity and intense desire to achieve their personal and professional goals.
Julie Mancini beamed as she reflected on her time in the COACH program while addressing the audience of family members, peers and faculty.
"It's hard to believe that two years have gone by and we are all standing here at graduation," she said. "I wish us all love and positivity in our future jobs no matter what it is. Let us all shine on!"
Julie Mancini won't stray far from the college. She plans to enroll in culinary and hospitality classes so she can continue her educational journey.
"COACH gave Julie the independence she yearned for," Joan Mancini said. "She truly felt like she was going to college, just like her peers. She has so much pride in herself and I've never seen her happier."
Many learning challenged students hit educational roadblocks after high school, said Michael Duggan, COD Counselor for Students with Disabilities.
COACH provides a valuable bridge to students, focusing on academics, social and independence skills and career exploration.
"These students are happy to join a community," Duggan said. "After high school, a lot of these students are told they are done with educational opportunities. That couldn't be further from the truth. These students are capable of holding jobs and living independently, but they fall into that gap where they are not high functioning enough to get an associates degree at COD. COACH is now an option for them, and they can get the training to have fuller lives."
Parents of students with intellectual disabilities are familiar with advocating for their kids.
But when it comes to finding a college, they have their work cut out for them, said Mary Harmon, whose son, Dylan, graduated from COACH.
"After Dylan completed his high school's transition program, Dylan had nowhere to go," she said. "We aren't sure what Dylan's path would have been if this program at COD hadn't been created. He has grown so much and radiates a confidence that I've never seen from him before. The college community has really embraced him."
Previously, Elmhurst College was the only institution offering similar programming in DuPage County.
Other programming may also be available nearby but comes with a high price tag, Duggan said.
"They all tend to be expensive, costing upwards of $25,000 per year. That's a tremendous financial burden for a family," he said. "For adults with developmental disabilities in DuPage County, this is a significant and important milestone for their independence and self-sufficiency and we're pleased we can meet this need."
The two-year program is broken up into four semesters. Year one is focused on skill building. Students review and build skills in fundamental math, literacy and computer technology, and begin to explore career paths. In the final year, students gain practical experience by engaging in an unpaid internship on campus for approximately 15 hours a week.
When the program is over, COD counselors and staff help students transition into the real world, helping them secure a job.
"A lot of for-profit programs offer the classes and then you graduate one day and they say 'good luck, thanks for paying!' That's not the case here," Duggan said.
In addition to the academic aspect of the program, students are encouraged to participate in campus social life by joining clubs and participating in campus activities. Students are paired with a COD Buddy, a student trained in working with students with intellectual disabilities. COD Buddies act as ambassadors and mentors to COACH students, providing them a connection to the social aspect of the college experience.
Duggan said that Julie developed such a strong connection with her COD Buddy that she requested to have two.
"Julie's Buddies encouraged her to get involved in different extracurricular activities she wouldn't have thought of on her own," Joan Mancini said. "She now has lifelong friends who are able to see beyond Julie's disability."
The COACH program is growing in popularity with its third cohort starting in the fall. To meet the growing needs of the program, Tracy Kline was hired as COACH Program Coordinator in the fall of 2018. Kline comes to the College from Glenbard East High School in Lombard, where she most recently served as Special Education Department Chair.
"When I first met the COACH students, their main question was if they could have a graduation," Kline said. "Of course I said yes. The staff and I felt it was extremely important to honor the students' commitment, diligence and motivation that were required to complete this challenging endeavor. It was an honor to hand them their diplomas."
While Duggan will soon step away from the day-to-day needs of COACH, he hopes to create even more programs that will help the underserved.
"The challenging thing is meeting the needs of DuPage County," he said. "We know there are about 101,000 people in DuPage County with developmental disabilities. The goal is to keep growing so we can ultimately reach more individuals who would benefit from programs like this."
COACH costs $2,499 per semester, which is in line with College of DuPage tuition.
Applications for the fall 2019 cohort are still being accepted.
For more information, call (630) 942-2176, or visit www.cod.edu/vocational.
To see more photos from the ceremony, visit the COD Newswroom page on Flickr.com.
College of DuPage is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. Serving approximately 25,000 students each term, College of DuPage is the largest public community college in the state of Illinois. The college grants seven associate degrees and offers more than 170 career and technical certificates in over 50 areas of study.