Despite disabilities, ACCESS students thrive from college experience

Cedric Gainwell is a sophomore student at Mississippi State University.

He’s traveled to Washington, D.C. on a team of students presenting agricultural findings to the National Science Foundation. He’s an intern with the veterinary school, where he learned this week he will be hired full time. He’s a quarterback for a football team that beat Ole Miss in November.

Gainwell is also one of 26 students this year in MSU’s ACCESS Program, which offers the college experience for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“It just shows me how many different opportunities I can have within the program,” Gainwell told Columbus Exchange Club members Thursday at Lion Hills Center. “I never thought I’d be able to go to different states because I’ve never been to Washington, D.C. It’s a whole lot of walking, like 17,000 steps.”

Established in 2008 at MSU, ACCESS provides its students with the opportunity to audit college classes, find jobs and live independently.

The four-year program has students live on-campus, teaches them life skills and affords them the myriad social opportunities that come with college life, Academic Coordinator Molly Stafford said.

Funding for the program comes in part from the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services while the rest comes from parents and students in the form of student loans or regular payments for in-state students, while out-of-state students pay out of pocket, Stafford said. Currently, the cost per year is more than $34,000.

“It’s one of only 30 transition programs in the nation that offers a four-year comprehensive residential college experience for students with intellectual and … developmental disabilities,” she said. “The hours of internships and job experiences and academic courses they’re able to take with us is just invaluable.”

The program focuses on four key areas – academia, career development, socialization and independent living. As part of that process, the students take both ACCESS-based and regular courses, at least one internship per semester and engage in community activities like football, where Gainwell helped lead his team to a Unified Egg Bowl Victory against a team from Ole Miss.

Once the program is complete, students receive a certificate of completion which holds the same weight as a college degree, Stafford said.

Stafford said one of the hallmarks of the program is its internships and assistance to finding opportunities post-graduation. In addition to Gainwell, a senior in the program who was working at a local hotel is now attending Disney College, a summer internship program in hospitality management.

“Today he found out that he got accepted into the Disney College Program,” she said. “Which is not for disabled students, it is for everybody and he made the cut and thousands get turned down for that.”

Other ACCESS students work at places like Barnes and Noble, campus dining facilities, Starkville hotels and the local library.

The program also teaches the students how to take advantage of resources such as public transportation like the Starkville-MSU Area Rapid Transit bus system, which Stafford said is a vital part of learning how to be independent and getting a job.

Another part of the program which Stafford mentioned was the interaction ACCESS students receive from their peers.

To better achieve this goal, the program hires student workers from MSU as college coaches, who meet with the students at least once a week to help them socialize and develop those behavioral skills they will use after college. They also spend extra time with these students in and outside the classroom as friends.

“Our college coaches are our backbone,” Stafford said. “(The coaches) are their partners, and they meet with (the students) once a week. They can do stuff in school and out of school with them, and these students do everything for us. They are wonderful. They run our study hours, go to classes with the students, help them take notes and they help them pay attention.”

Anna Vredingburgh, one of those college coaches, told Exchange Club members she has seen some of the students she paired with really grow into their own.

“I was paired with Cedric, and actually, we made so much progress that he just didn’t need me anymore,” she said. “By the end of the year, he was checking up on me more than checking up on him.”

Link to article: