USM Initiative Expands Education, Career Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities

August 11, 2023

Mary Ann Taylor completed the USM Institute for Disability Studies' (IDS) Higher Education for All pilot program at USM, which is now the RISE To The Top! Certificate, a four-year, eight-semester inclusive college program incorporating academics and
Mary Ann Taylor completed the USM Institute for Disability Studies' (IDS) Higher Education for All pilot program at USM, which is now the RISE To The Top! Certificate, a four-year, eight-semester inclusive college program incorporating academics and

A collaborative effort at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) between its Institute for Disability Studies (IDS) and School of Interdisciplinary Studies and Professional Development (ISPD) is opening doors to higher education and job training for individuals who previously had limited or no access to such opportunities.

The Reaching, Including, Supporting and Educating (RISE) To The Top! Certificate is a four-year, eight-semester inclusive college program incorporating academics and employment preparation, leading to a certificate upon completion, for persons with intellectual disabilities. As part of the certificate format, participants enroll in a minimum of one class each semester; are matched with peer mentors; take part in employment-focused internships and service-involvement activities; and are anticipated to participate in spring commencement.

The certificate was approved earlier this year by the State Institutions for Higher Learning (IHL). It follows a pilot program previously administered at USM, known as the Higher Education for All program, that was the brainchild of IDS Associate Director Dr. Jerry Alliston and facilitated jointly by IDS and ISPD. It was funded through a grant from the Mississippi Council on Developmental Disabilities.

The initial phase of the new certificate program includes accommodation for up to 10 students; it is housed by ISPD and coordinated through IDS, and one of only two of its kind in the state. Applications, interviews, and selections for the program take place during the spring semester, with selected students attending a “college prep boot camp” during the summer prior to enrollment. 

“Former U.N. Secretary Gen. Kofi Annan once said, ‘Education is a human right with immense power to transform.’,” said. Dr. Alliston. “Higher education certainly transforms the lives of students enrolled in an inclusive postsecondary education program, and, at its core, this program provides new educational opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities through inclusive, individualized services making dreams a reality, including that of starting one’s career.” 

In 2008, Dr. Alliston coordinated a grant project at IDS that was titled TRIAD (Training, Resources, and Information for the Advancement of Degrees). A primary focus of TRIAD was increasing the number of youths with disabilities accepted into postsecondary education institutions. 

“This focus was accomplished through offering training to youth and young adults with disabilities in high school on how to prepare for attending college,” Dr. Alliston explained. “Through this work, I consulted with a lot of high school teachers and was constantly asked ‘What about our students with intellectual/developmental disabilities? They need options after high school.’ This led me to start exploring these college programs for students with intellectual disabilities, which led to assisting one student to take a class, then another and eventually led to our pilot program [in 2015] and the RISE To The Top! Southern Miss full program.” 

Key USM personnel managing the program, along with Dr. Alliston, include Dr. Ann Marie Kinnell, director of the ISPD and faculty partner and academic advisor for RISE; Laura Malone, assistant director and lecturer for ISPD and a faculty partner and advisor for RISE; and Danielle Parks of IDS, coordinator for RISE.

The initial objective for the certificate is enrolling the first full cohort for the fall 2024 semester, consisting of 8-10 students. Future goals include coordinating housing for these students [the program currently does not include a residential opportunity] and obtaining funding to establish a program scholarship and overall sustainability for the program.

Since the inception of the Higher Education for All pilot program, students engaged in its curriculum have completed 24 distinct undergraduate courses taught by 30 instructors from across multiple disciplines at the university. Malone believes those numbers are significant, as they were produced before the program became established. Malone also noted that 10 students generated more than 120 credit hours during that same period.   

Malone has partnered with IDS since 2015, and most recently the pilot program, and hailed approval of the official certificate program as “a wonderful accomplishment.” 

“Dr. Alliston has dreamed of this program for many years, and the certificate is a huge step forward for inclusion, diversity, and equity --- for students seeking post-secondary education,” she said. “There are many beautiful elements about this program, but if I were to highlight three, they would be how it expands opportunity for post-secondary education, strengthens our sense of community, and nurtures collaboration among USM partners.”

Reagan Ratcliff and Mary Ann Taylor secured their dreams of going to college after high school through completion of the Higher Education for All pilot program at USM, overcoming their own disabilities with the help of the program’s staff, university faculty and fellow students who supported them in achieving their goals.

“The postsecondary program at Southern Miss gave me a way to experience college life, get involved in the community, and continue to learn and have new experiences,” Ratcliff said. “I took classes, learned new skills, tried new things, and met lots of great people. I am proud of my education and accomplishments and proud to be a Golden Eagle.” 

For Taylor, being in the program gave her the opportunity to make new friends and participate in leadership roles while at USM.

“I would like to say thank you to my professors, my academic advisor [Laura Malone], my peer mentors, and the staff at the Institute for Disability Studies [Dr. Jerry Alliston and Danielle Parks] for supporting me during my journey at USM and enriching my life.”

Certificate facilitators believe additional benefits of the program to the University community include providing new teaching and research opportunities for faculty who engage with its students in the classroom, promoting scholarship that examines how the postsecondary program benefits RISE student with disabilities, their peers, and the University as a whole; and offering transformative learning experiences for peer students who attend classes with RISE students, and the connecting these classroom activities with real-world community experiences while also providing opportunities to be peer mentors, interns, volunteers.

Dr. Jessica Valles, an assistant teaching professor of sociology in the USM School of Social Science and Global Studies and taught Higher Education for All pilot students, said that in the past, students with intellectual disabilities have essentially been left out of the conversation when considering postsecondary pursuits, as options to continue education after high school are often limited.

“It (RISE!) is truly the embodiment of inclusive education,” Dr. Valles continued. “Students with intellectual disabilities should have access to the same opportunities and experiences as those without. These students are just as eager to learn, and to add the valuable skills to their toolkits that help us all navigate the social world around us.”  

Gina Fiorentini-Wright, a lecturer in the College of Nursing and Health Professions’ School of Health Professions, taught pilot program students during two semesters in her Personal Wellness [COH 100] course. She described them as “two of the most reliable students I’ve ever taught.”

“Neither of them missed class, they took careful notes, and completed all tasks and assignments,” Fiorentini-Wright further noted. “And I will always remember the care and deference awarded these students by their classmates. Whenever group work was assigned, other students made it a point to create a group with each of our Higher Education for All students; having them in class seemed to create a caring community that we [in the Public Health program] want to foster.

“I have taught at USM for many years, have met hundreds of students, and these two particular students will always be part of the cherished memories that I have as a teacher.”

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