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'You can achieve with a disability': Georgia College opens doors for adults with disabilities

The college launched the GCSU Thrive Initiative– a two-year certificate program– in January. It gives adults with disabilities a chance to continue their education.

MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. — Georgia College and State University are telling folks with intellectual disabilities that their education matters too. 

The college launched the GCSU Thrive Initiative– a two-year certificate program– in January. It gives adults with disabilities a chance to continue their education.

13WMAZ’s Jessica Cha met with two of the first students in the program to see how school's going. 

"It's going good! I'm making A's and B's in each of them,” says 21-year-old Maddie St. John. 

St. John is one of the first 2 students in Georgia College's Thrive program. She's loving her class schedule. 

"My next class after lunch is critical thinking. I love writing stories and that is very interesting so far,” she says. 

Nicole DeClouette– associate Dean and co-director of the Thrive program– says folks with intellectual disabilities like Maddie don't usually have opportunities to pursue college. 

“Individuals with disabilities can stay in school until they’re 21. When one student turned 22, he went to catch the bus and the bus never came for him,” she explains. “If they don’t work, many of them are staying at home, and that’s just not productive for them– it’s just not productive for society."

DeCloette says this program wants to help dispel stigma and prejudice, and prove that adults with disabilities can keep up with their peers.

“Because of their intellectual disability, they wouldn’t have the GPA, the test scores to matriculate as a typical student at Georgia College. That’s the purpose of the program is to give them an opportunity to have a college experience. It’s hoping to give them the job skills that they need to be employable,” she explains. 

They'll take 2 three-credit classes each semester on Tuesday and Thursdays. That’s eight classes in two years, including an internship. 

"They also take a course that we teach them about money management and preparing for job interviews. It's the first program in middle Georgia,” DeClouette says. 

To qualify, students must have a documented mental disability and a desire to go to college and learn. They must also be able to communicate with others. 

DeCloette says St. John and Spencer Kirkley– the other Thrive student– are doing amazing. 

"I think they're enjoying being here. They're loving meeting other students,” she says. 

Special Education major Jackson Taylor would know. He helps peer mentor both St. John and Kirkley– helping them with homework and socializing with them. 

“Spencer is the shy one. He’s a very funny guy,” Taylor says. “Maddie, she’s a very outgoing person. She always has such a positive mindset about everything.”

Taylor says working with them helps him in his special education major, but also helps him be a better person. He says he’s learning a lot by being with them. 

“It’s not my job just to be a teacher. It’s my job to be their friend as well,” Taylor says. 

St. John is now juggling a job at Wendy's and classes. She says despite her disability, she has big goals.

“My goal in life is to be a disability advocate to help and advocate for those who have disabilities like me," she says.

She says anyone can go to college, just like her. 

"It's okay to be scared and nervous,” St. John says. “It doesn't have to be about your disability. You can achieve things with your disability without looking back.”

DeClouette says they'd like to continue the program into the fall and are looking for donations.

She says they're also looking for businesses in town to host internships with the thrive program students. 

You can contact DeClouette to donate at her email: Nicole.DeClouette@gcsu.edu.

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