On any given day, members of Congress and their staff may hold dozens of meetings with concerned citizens and interest groups looking to advocate on behalf of a particular issue.
Sometimes these citizens are seeking additional revenue for their cause. Other times, they want to educate and spread awareness.
If you took a survey of the congressional staffers who met recently with a delegation from Syracuse University’s InclusiveU program, chances are they would remember the energetic and charismatic Olivia Baist ’22, who recently earned a degree in studio arts from the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
Baist is a proud graduate of Syracuse University and its InclusiveU program, which thanks to an initiative from the Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education brings students of all ages with intellectual and developmental disabilities to campus to experience college life in a fully inclusive setting.
Baist and two of her InclusiveU colleagues—director Brianna Shults G’20 and Katie Ducett, an inclusive (special) education Ph.D. candidate in the School of Education—spent two days pushing for policy change to make higher education accessible for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities during a whirlwind tour of Capitol Hill in Washington, DC
Without fear, Baist would approach anyone she came across on the Hill, introducing herself, extolling the virtues of InclusiveU and telling the representatives her short- and long-term goals: “I want a career, I want a job and I want my own apartments. InclusiveU is helping me start my career and I’m grateful and thankful,” says Baist, who admits she wouldn’t have left home to pursue a college degree were it not for InclusiveU.
Their purpose was clear: to ask these elected officials to serve as a resource, to increase support and awareness of InclusiveU, and to reduce the stigmas that still exist surrounding students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“I made my forever friends at Syracuse and it’s all because of InclusiveU,” Baist says. “I had internships [at the Barnes Center at the Arch and Bird Library] and I’ve really grown. I always wanted to go to college, and this made me more independent.”
Opening Doors for All
Syracuse University has a proud 152-year history of opening its doors to all students who are interested in receiving a college degree, regardless of their background or bringing up.
But for many adolescent students with developmental disabilities, the pursuit of higher education is filled with roadblocks and can be a daunting task for both aspiring students and their families. Founded in 2001, InclusiveU equips students with the necessary skills to thrive in the classroom and find a job after graduation.
What started as a dual enrollment program with the Syracuse City School District has grown exponentially over the last 21 years. Last year, more than 100 students pursued their academic dreams on campus as part of InclusiveU’s program, including 35 students who lived in residence halls.
The program features individualized and inclusive coursework, student-centered planning, internships and social and extracurricular activities.
Because of strong partnerships that increase accessibility to higher education while making the various academic programs and student life opportunities more accessible through student-oriented, peer-to-peer programming, Shults says InclusiveU has been successful while helping transform so many lives.
“InclusiveU really has a big impact on our campus. We contribute a lot to the campus community, and our students have a profound impact on other students. The roadblocks our students deal with are similar to their counterparts on campus, from figuring out how to afford college to creating a career plan, but we are always looking for ways to give our students access to the resources they need while breaking down the barriers to an education,” Shults says.
Preparing for a Lifetime of Success
According to Shults, before the COVID-19 pandemic, 100% of InclusiveU students were successful in finding paid, competitive jobs once they earned their degree, thanks in part to the relationships InclusiveU develops with its partners, both on campus and in the Central New York community.
Another factor? In conjunction with their three years of academic education, each InclusiveU student participates in a one-year internship that can help guide their careers post-graduation.
“Our students want to do more once they graduate high school. We want these students to have that college experience, to live in a purposeful and meaningful way on campus. Our students graduate with skills they can transfer across disciplines, transferrable skills that set them up for success when they graduate,” Shults says.
Before coming to Syracuse University, Ducett was a teacher, and when her year was finished, she often found herself wondering why society was placing limitations on students with developmental disabilities.
A desire to open up access to colleges and universities to all students with developmental disabilities has greatly influenced Ducett’s research, whose upcoming dissertation research will examine the barriers facing inclusive education students, how InclusiveU enhances its students’ social lives, whether students feel included and more .
“We have to fix and change that societal belief so everyone sees that students with intellectual and developmental disabilities can go to college, get a job and have a real career they enjoy, and Olivia is a terrific example of that. InclusiveU has helped a lot of students find their independence while discovering what they can do on their own. They’re able to make the choices for themselves and they have the support they need to succeed,” Ducett says.
Stating Their Case in Washington
Leading up to their trip to Capitol Hill, InclusiveU was one of 10 higher education institutions that applied for and was granted a two-day crash course in policy studies and creating policy changes in inclusive higher education.
As executive director of federal engagement for the Office of Government and Community Relations, Laura Kolton has a wealth of contacts and know-how when it comes to securing meetings with elected officials.
Understanding InclusiveU’s important message, Kolton tapped into her contacts to arrange meetings between the InclusiveU delegation and several offices on the Hill.
“They were talking about the research we’re doing on campus and making the case for additional funding. Olivia really enlightened everyone she met with. Hearing her speak about her own experiences was very beneficial. This is a process, and these meetings were the first steps, but this is all part of the relationship-building needed to effect change,” Kolton says.
When meeting with members of Congress, the InclusiveU team recognized that Baist’s tale is one of many success stories stemming from InclusiveU. Shults made sure to emphasize why it’s important to share these success stories, and why further funding and advocacy are needed to ensure future generations of InclusiveU students have access to the same resources.
“Olivia has an amazing personality and once you meet her, you feel her energy. She didn’t know whether college was for her, and I believe she was the first person with intellectual and developmental disabilities from her area to go away to college. We’re so proud of Olivia, and we’re determined to help as many students as we can,” Shults says.