You've Got a Friend in Me
Fifteen students plus numerous ClemsonLIFE mentors equals one life changing experience. Going away to college is a luxury that isn't available to many students with intellectual disabilities. However, with Clemson's unique program, students are offered the opportunity to gain postsecondary experience in a welcoming environment. The interim program director, Sarah Conklin, stated that "Typically, the statistics are low for adults with intellectual disabilities who live outside of their parent's home and have full-time employment. So this kind of program is building to change that and help those students."
The modified curriculum consists of courses specifically designed for the ClemsonLIFE program. Students enroll in classes that prepare them to live independently, including functional literacy, budgeting, banking, social skills, and health and safety. The only Clemson University course that they take is a leisure skill, which helps them stay active and interact with others.
In addition to taking these classes, the students also spend 20 hours a week working an independent job. The program notes that "higher education can be a vehicle for increased self-awareness and can provide access to social networks, employment, and independence."
While being on a college campus is important, interacting with other students and forming bonds with peers is essential. This is where two Creative Inquiry teams are involved. While one group of Clemson students acts as peer mentors, the other group focuses on teaching nutrition and healthy eating habits. Leland Chandler II is a current RA in the program and has served as a mentor in the past. He comments, "ClemsonLIFE is where we grow. 'We' is used because not only do the ClemsonLIFE students learn, the mentors learn as well."
In the mentoring program, the Clemson students meet with their mentees on a weekly basis to guide them through the adjustment to college life. During these meetings, they focus on fundamental life skills, such as goal setting and problem solving. Additionally, the students get together for extracurricular events, which helps improve the social skills of ClemsonLIFE students. Conklin notes "It's the social piece that you really can't buy...having someone to go to a football game with, or go to a basketball game with, or just go to lunch with is really a priceless experience."
Led by Rita Haliena from the food, nutrition, and packaging science department, the nutritional Creative Inquiry group focuses on instilling proper eating habits and cooking skills in the students. People with disabilities often suffer from obesity and diabetes, due to sedentary lifestyles and poor nutrition choices. The Clemson students assist them with creating menus and grocery lists on a weekly basis. Then, they get together in the on-campus apartments to properly prepare all of the meals. This guided process allows the ClemsonLIFE students to pick up basic kitchen skills.
These Creative Inquiry teams are fundamental to providing ClemsonLIFE students with social experiences they will never forget. Conklin noted, "Parents say that even from when they drop their students off in August to when they come home at Thanksgiving, it's like a completely different child." Simply having that support system and emotional backbone from their peers is invaluable to the students. These Creative Inquiry teams are touching lives every single day. As Chandler stated, "There is power stored inside of the ClemsonLIFE students, and I have witnessed dreams being fulfilled."