Next Steps at Vanderbilt graduates to join their peers at Commencement


For the first time, graduates from the Next Steps at Vanderbilt program for students with developmental disabilities will walk in the full campus Commencement ceremony. 

 The eight Next Steps graduates who are a part of the program’s Class of 2022 will share in the ceremony that many of their peer mentors will participate in at Vanderbilt Stadium on May 13.  

“This is an inclusive program that is the first of its kind in Tennessee. For the first time, to see Next Steps students participate in the full Commencement, it reminds us that as a high-level university we are committed to diversity and inclusion,” said Tammy Day, founding director of the Next Steps program. “We are thrilled to see our students join with their peers for this momentous day.” 

Day and many of the 22 peer mentors who’ve spent time with the eight Next Steps graduates over the past four years gathered for a pre-Commencement celebration at the Sarratt Student Center on May 3. 

Many students and peer mentors shared stories of how the program has forever changed their lives. 

Next Steps graduate Andre Carter came to Vanderbilt four years ago from Medina, Tennessee, and has thrived in the program. He gained valuable independent living skills and has secured a job assisting with tickets and ushering at soccer games after graduation. 

“A lot of people who are graduating, I know them and I’ve gotten to meet them over the past four years. (Graduation) means a lot because I’ve always wanted to come to college,” Carter said. “Being here was a really enjoyable experience.”  

Everyone who is part of the program will treasure the relationships and memories made through Next Steps, said Zoe Rankin, a Vanderbilt senior and president of the Next Steps Ambassadores who has served as a mentor to students. 

“In my four years here I’ve gotten to see Next Steps students change a rule to allow them to play club sports … I’ve gotten to see my friends join Greek chapters and pilot independent living. I can’t think of a better way to end my time at Vanderbilt than to walk alongside some of the greatest people I’ve ever met at graduation,” Rankin said.  

“It’s the greatest feeling. Coming into college, I couldn’t imagine the impact the program would have on me,” she added. “This campus is cohesive, and we’re all together. We all did four years at Vanderbilt, and now we can move on to the next chapter together.” 

Graduates from Vanderbilt’s Next Steps program for students with developmental disabilities gathered with peer mentors for a pre-Commencement celebration at Sarratt Student Center on May 3. The Next Steps graduates will walk in the full campus Commencement ceremony at Vanderbilt Stadium as part of the official ceremony for the first time on May 13. (John Russell/Vanderbilt)


About Next Steps 

Housed in Peabody College of education and human development’s Department of Special Education, Next Steps at Vanderbilt provides students with intellectual disabilities an inclusive, transformational higher education experience that embodies the values of belonging, compassion and excellence in all endeavors. 

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 can 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. 

The launch of Next Steps at Vanderbilt in 2010 was a collaborative effort that took several years of planning. The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s University 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 Williamson County, local educators and parents to develop the program. Linda Brooks and the LDB Foundation provided the initial funding that allowed Next Steps at Vanderbilt to apply for a pilot grant from the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities. 

Reflection of priorities 

Vanderbilt University has a long history of supporting the development and inclusion of learners with intellectual disabilities. 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 Day, continues their strong legacy of education, care and inclusion for all students. 

Peabody’s Department of Special Education, which has been home to the Next Steps at Vanderbilt program for the past 12 years, ranked No. 1 in the 2022 U.S. News & World Report specialty rankings of graduate schools of education, and it 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. 

Day said every class of graduating Next Steps students brings unique reasons to celebrate. She said she’s looking forward to seeing the group walk in Vanderbilt Stadium for the first time as part of the official ceremonya milestone that will bring the traditional fanfare of Vanderbilt’s Commencement to Next Steps students who’ve left their mark on campus. 

“The university has given us so many indicators that our students matter, that they are embraced by the student body. This is such a hallmark for us,” Day said. “I’m looking forward to seeing the joy of our students not only when they get recognized, but being right there as their favorite friends walk across the stage—that’s a piece that they haven’t been able to be a part of before.”