Commencement at Florida Gulf Coast University took on new meaning this spring as a select group of students made history as they walked across the Alico Arena stage. Eight participants in Southwest Florida’s first university program for adults with intellectual disabilities graduated during the May 7 ceremony.
The inaugural cohort of FGCU R.I.S.E. — which stands for Real Independence, Successful Employment — completed the two-year certificate program focused on preparing them to work and live independently. In addition to completing 41 credit hours over two years, they enjoyed opportunities for a full university experience with academic support, social and physical recreation involvement, service-learning opportunities and more.
In preparation for graduation, the participants gathered in the Cohen Student Union to celebrate their accomplishments with their families and receive the caps, gowns and stoles they would wear at commencement.
“We are so proud of you,” said Alyssa Sanabria, who coordinates and teaches in the program with Kaitlynn Curwick, as she welcomed guests.
Hugs and high-fives, tears and cheers marked the momentous occasion. FGCU President Mike Martin hailed the students as pioneers.
Thomas Roberts called launching the program the highlight of his time as interim College of Education dean. The guests shared their enthusiasm.
“I’m so excited to be graduating! I’m excited to walk across the stage,” said Alexandra Alley. “I’ve learned about living on my own and being independent. It has changed me. Instead of staying at home, it’s important to me to see more people and have more opportunities.”
Alley said navigating new places and situations and making new friends was her favorite part of the R.I.S.E. experience. As part of the program, she also completed an internship working in hospitality at Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre in Fort Myers.
“We’re just so proud of Alex and her progress,” said her father, Grant Alley. “We want her to be challenged. We wanted a real college experience for her. This program is a game-changer, not only for our family but for many families. With Down syndrome and other cognitive disabilities, there are not a lot of opportunities. This is a world-class program right here in Southwest Florida. FGCU is doing it right.”
With positive role models among FGCU faculty and staff, his daughter’s confidence and work ethic blossomed, he said.
Isabella Bocanegra, who identifies as being on the autism disorder spectrum, also praised the support system she encountered through R.I.S.E.
“I never thought I would be in college. It’s like a dream come true,” she said. “I learned a lot. I enjoyed everything about it.”
That includes making new friends through Best Buddies. This FGCU student organization creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Bocanegra especially enjoyed her classes in the College of Education and her internship at Little Eagles Learning Center, which cares for children of FGCU students and employees. Through R.I.S.E., she developed teaching skills she hopes to use in the workforce.
“I love working with little kids. I love education,” she said. “My plan is to become a paraprofessional at a school for children with special needs. Teachers really help people succeed. Helping others succeed in their lives will make a really big difference in the community.”
For parents like Catherine Davis, R.I.S.E. helped allay concerns about establishing self-reliance outside the familiarity and protection of family life. Once on campus, her daughter adapted to student life, riding the campus bus to SoVi Dining for lunch and walking to Starbucks like her peers. Now her daughter’s talking about getting her own apartment.
“She has gained tons of independence,” Davis said. “To have a college experience — not enough people in the neuroatypical community can do that. We’re very blessed. It’s going to change her future. It’s a wonderful transition from high school to adulthood.”
Some of the next cohort of R.I.S.E. students also joined the pre-commencement celebration. Soon they will begin their journey to graduation day, taking R.I.S.E. core courses in effective learning, social skills and technology use as well as university electives based on their area of interest. Students participate in job shadowing and volunteer opportunities in preparation for two semester-long internships aligned with their interests.
FGCU R.I.S.E. accepts up to 10 participants, 18 to 28 years old, in each group. Each is awarded a $7,000 scholarship to offset the cost of regular tuition and fees and additional costs. Students can also apply for Pell Grant funding and work-study opportunities based on financial need. Go to the program website for more information.