Students with intellectual and developmental disabilities are fully included with their peers at Syracuse University through InclusiveU, an initiative of the Lawrence B. Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education —they take classes, attend events and enjoy hanging out with their friends. With the quick transition to online learning this spring, InclusiveU leadership staff were tasked with ensuring student success and fostering that feeling of community remotely.
InclusiveU staff provided academic and social support virtually for InclusiveU students. They communicated with families, faculty and peer mentors to ensure students had the resources they needed, and they arranged for any required accommodations.
“We spent the first week of online learning troubleshooting issues, ensuring students knew how and when to log on to online sessions, and assisting in the understanding of any modifications made to syllabi,” says Brianna Shults, internship and employment coordinator, who assisted with scheduling for InclusiveU students in the spring semester. “We were amazed at the adaptability and flexibility our students demonstrated through this process,” she adds.
In addition to their regular duties, InclusiveU staff also played the role of advisor, providing help and encouragement to groups of students. “We kept in contact with our students in a variety of ways to ensure they were completing the semester as successfully as possible,” Shults says.
Maia Chamberlain, a first-year InclusiveU student, found aspects of the move to online learning challenging. “Because I am nonverbal, it was hard to talk in class on Zoom,” she says. “I either had to type in chat or have my mom interpret. Sometimes I thought of questions later and had to email my professor.”
As an extra measure of support and to quickly address these challenges, InclusiveU staff and peer mentors asked to be added to the students’ online courses for access to the syllabi and live class sessions. “Adding InclusiveU leadership staff and mentors to the courses allowed them to check on students in the event there was a question or concern with the material,” Shults says.
Thomas Wilson, a first-year InclusiveU student and political science major, found the extra support valuable. “Every week I had a brief meeting with Dee [Katovitch, Taishoff Center assistant director] to talk about how my week went,” he says. “My mentor went to my online class and would call me to go over the class notes and just talk.”
Both Chamberlain and Wilson enjoyed certain aspects of online learning, such as the flexibility in their respective online classrooms. “In my class we did a virtual museum project and even had a guest speaker on Zoom from North Carolina,” Chamberlain says.
“The best thing was getting to interact with lots of people,” Wilson says. “The teacher had more opportunities to do the class differently, with different ways to learn.”
In addition to their regular coursework, InclusiveU students typically take weekly seminars on a variety of topics, taught by faculty, staff and traditionally enrolled students. Last semester’s seminars included the Socratic method, creativity in college and time management.
To help students get together, InclusiveU staff supplemented the seminars with a wide variety of social and instructional sessions over Zoom. A full calendar of offerings included home workouts, jewelry making and photography. “These seminars were a great place for students to connect socially and see their friends on a daily basis,” Shults says.
While seminars on campus are restricted by classroom space and the number of students who can attend, the virtual seminars were made available to all students in InclusiveU. “We have seen and heard a great response from our students and their families about these offerings,” Shults says. “Most seminars had at least 10 students in them per session. Some students attended as many as they could throughout the day.”
Staff and traditionally enrolled students spent extra time with InclusiveU students during scheduled lunch hours, coffee sessions and a weekly dance party . “We recognized students would typically fill their time between classes or at the end of the day hanging out with friends, doing things they enjoyed,” Shults says. “We wanted to provide them a space to do that same thing, whether it be through coffee and conversation, yoga or dance.”
While the spring semester was a success for InclusiveU students, it is a testament to the community they have built at Syracuse University that they are eager to return to campus. “I really miss being in the classroom with others,” Wilson says. “I miss talking and seeing the professor face to face and having one-on-one conversations.”
He plans to keep in touch with his friends and InclusiveU staff members over the summer, and he has a positive outlook for the fall semester. “I hope we can all be back on campus,” he says. “It is important to be hopeful.”
Chamberlain is excited to continue her education with a virtual summer class. She says she also has high hopes for the fall. “I want to go back to school and see my InclusiveU friends—they have become my SU family.”