Next Steps at Vanderbilt celebrates first four-year class, 10th anniversary

Next Steps at Vanderbilt class of 2020. (L to r, back row to front row) Daniel Brawner, Chris Webster, Jack Pipkorn, Charles Fedderman, Darko Osman, Alex Zarabi, Rob Funk, Peach Chinratanalab
The Next Steps at Vanderbilt Class of 2020. (L-r, back row-front row) Daniel Brawner, Chris Webster, Jack Pipkorn, Charles Fedderman, Darko Osman, Alex Zarabi, Rob Funk, Peach Chinratanalab.

As Next Steps at Vanderbilt marks its 10th anniversary throughout 2020, the year also brings another significant milestone: The first class of Next Steps at Vanderbilt students will graduate from its expanded four-year program.

Eight students will graduate from the program as part of the Class of 2020 this May. Housed in Peabody College of education and human development’s Department of Special Education, Next Steps at Vanderbilt provides students with intellectual disability an inclusive, transformational higher education experience that embodies the values of equality, compassion and excellence in all endeavors.

“During their time here, these eight students have furthered Vanderbilt’s inclusive excellence while gaining valuable knowledge and skills,” said Camilla P. Benbow, Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development. “As the first Next Steps four-year cohort, they have been pioneers in post-secondary education for students with intellectual disabilities. In doing so, they have paved the way for others to come. We are proud of their achievement.”

Next Steps at Vanderbilt planned to hold an in-person graduation celebration in May, which would have included the program’s students participating in Vanderbilt’s overall Commencement festivities for the first time. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, however, students will engage with the university’s virtual celebrations on May 8, and the Next Steps at Vanderbilt program will also host a virtual recognition celebration on May 14 for students and families to celebrate their many accomplishments.

“I have grown a lot at Vanderbilt,” said Peach Chinratanalab, who will graduate from the Next Steps at Vanderbilt program this year. “I can now schedule events with my friends off-campus. Independence-wise, now I can do more for myself. Career-wise, I think I have found a great job I am good at.”

While in the program, students work with Next Steps at Vanderbilt staff to create a self-directed program of study that allows for a unique and customized path for achievement in academic areas, independent-living skills, career development and university life. Students also have the opportunity to participate in up to two Vanderbilt courses per semester in subjects such as anthropology, oceanography, astronomy, criminology, music and songwriting, history of art, government and politics, leadership, theater and more. Additionally, students are able to participate in individualized on-campus internships during their first two years, and off-campus paid internships in their field of interest during their last two years.

Next Steps at Vanderbilt celebrates a decade of changing lives.
Next Steps at Vanderbilt celebrates a decade of changing lives.

Alex Zarabi, who will graduate from the Next Steps at Vanderbilt program this year, has had a wide range of career development placements. He has worked with the Vanderbilt men’s basketball team, the David Williams II Recreation and Wellness Center, the Bill Wilkerson Center, the Veteran’s Affairs Hospital and more. Alex’s mother, Suzy Zarabi, spoke to the pride that she has for her son and the bright future ahead after he graduates from Next Steps at Vanderbilt. “I am so very proud of Alex and all of his accomplishments. He has had a lot of challenges over the years and has come through like a champion. I know he is on a wonderful journey going forward.”

While this is the first class to graduate from the four-year program, Next Steps at Vanderbilt has previously awarded 34 two-year certificates to students prior to the program’s expansion in 2015. Nationally, adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities have an 80 percent unemployment rate, a statistic Next Steps at Vanderbilt is working to flip. Of the 34 graduates of the program, 85 percent were employed upon completion of the program. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Next Steps at Vanderbilt, through its career development program, continues to support current students who have been impacted.

“Amidst this growing national movement, Next Steps at Vanderbilt has become a model for inclusive higher education. The passion, talents, determination and contributions evident in each class of students—including among these eight wonderful seniors—is transforming so many corners of this campus,” said Erik Carter, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Special Education and principal investigator for a federal grant supporting the program’s growth. “Faculty, staff, undergraduates and campus leaders alike see this program as the embodiment of our university’s commitment to excellence, equity and diversity.”

The impact of Next Steps at Vanderbilt over the past 10 years, and its leadership in being the first inclusive higher education program in Tennessee, was recently recognized by Vanderbilt Student Government, Nashville’s Metro Council and the Tennessee State Legislature with resolutions in honor of the program. The Vanderbilt men’s basketball team also recognized the program during a Feb. 22 home game. In addition, the team honored Perry Wallace, BE’70, the first African American to play varsity basketball in the Southeastern Conference, during the game. Next Steps at Vanderbilt was the recipient of the Perry Wallace Courage Award in 2016.

The launch of Next Steps at Vanderbilt was a collaborative effort following several years of planning. The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, whose mission is to facilitate discoveries and best practices to improve the lives of persons with developmental disabilities and their families, worked with the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, the Down Syndrome Association of Middle Tennessee, the Arc of Williamson County, local educators and parents to develop the program. The Linda Brooks Foundation provided the initial funding that allowed Next Steps at Vanderbilt to apply for a pilot grant from the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities.

Vanderbilt University has a long history of supporting the development and inclusion of learners with intellectual disability. Built on a foundation laid by Peabody College faculty members and pioneers Susan Gray and Nicholas Hobbs, the Next Steps at Vanderbilt program, led by founding Director Tammy Day, continues their strong legacy of education, care and inclusion for all students.

Visit the Next Steps at Vanderbilt website to learn more about the program.

Peabody’s Department of Special Education, which has been home to the Next Steps at Vanderbilt program for the past 10 years, is currently ranked No. 1 in the U.S. News & World Report annual specialty rankings of graduate schools of education, and has been ranked first or second since the rankings’ inception. The mission of the department is to improve the lives of children and youth with disabilities by preparing exceptional teachers and researchers, conducting research that informs and improves educational programs and behavioral interventions, and leading professional associations and advocacy for persons with disabilities.