Next Steps at Vanderbilt holds spring commencement

Michael Heroux, Rachel Pearson, Steven Greiner (Anne Rayner)

Three students graduated from Next Steps at Vanderbilt, a two-year certificate program for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, April 25. The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center created Next Steps in 2009 as the first of only two college programs in Tennessee for adults with disabilities.

Steven Greiner, Michael Heroux and Rachel Pearson comprised the second graduating class and participated in a commencement ceremony at the Wyatt Center Rotunda.

The goal of the program is to broaden career options and improve independent living and social skills through a college experience. Students participate in internships, technical training, student-to-student mentorship and integrated classroom experiences while learning skills that can lead to more independence.

Next Steps students complete four classes each semester, including one undergraduate-level class with other Vanderbilt students. To date, more than 25 Vanderbilt faculty members have hosted Next Steps students, including commencement speaker Sharon Shields, professor of the practice of human and organizational development and dean of professional education, who says participation with the program has been a highlight of her 35-year teaching career.

“You enrich our classrooms because you give us new perspectives, you bring us a joy and an enthusiasm for learning, you bring ideas, and you share from personal experiences,” Shields said to the graduates in her commencement address. “We know you will go on to do amazing things in life, to be agents of change and to make a difference in this world. How do we know that will happen? Because you have been amazing agents of change right here at Vanderbilt, and you have made a difference for us all.”

The parents of new graduate Rachel Pearson say this program has allowed their daughter’s dreams to come true.

“The program has been great for [Rachel] and she’s taken full advantage of it,” Eddie Pearson said. “Each student came in with a certain level of ability, and this program has challenged them to realize they can do a lot more than before. Thank you to Vanderbilt.”

Presiding over the ceremony were Cynthia Cyrus, associate provost for undergraduate affairs; Elisabeth Dykens, VKC director; Tammy Day, Next Steps program director; Robert Hodapp, professor of special education and director of research for the VKC University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD); Elise McMillan, VKC UCEDD co-director; and Kelly Wendell and Amy Gonzalez, Next Steps program coordinators.

Support for the creation of Next Steps at Vanderbilt was provided by gifts from Linda Brooks, her family, and her LDB Foundation. Key funding also came from the Louise Bullard Wallace Foundation and a grant from the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities.

Current Next Steps students will resume classes this fall with up to eight new students. Plans are underway for Next Steps alumni to join the Tennessee Alliance for Postsecondary Opportunities for Students with Intellectual Disabilities to advocate for similar college programs on other campuses in the state.