Students with special needs easing into college life - WSMV News 4

Students with special needs easing into college life

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Jamal Underwood, 19, takes part in the Next Steps program at Vanderbilt. Jamal Underwood, 19, takes part in the Next Steps program at Vanderbilt.

Second semester classes began Monday for many Middle Tennessee college students. At Vanderbilt University, that includes some 12 students with special needs who are part of the Next Steps program.

Last fall, Channel 4 introduced you to Amber Cameron and Jamal Underwood. We recently checked in with them to see how they are doing halfway through their freshman year.

“I’ve enjoyed the most making friends, getting to know people deeper, in a friendship kind of way,” Cameron said.

Cameron said so far, college life at Vanderbilt really agrees with her. Maybe a little too much.

“I know I wasn’t trying as hard as I should have and I am going to step up my game this semester,” she said.

The 19-year-old Franklin resident is in her second semester in the Next Steps program at Vanderbilt, a two-year certificate program for student with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities.

“It feels normal to me,” Cameron said. “I don’t feel different than other people. Even though I am, I have a math issue and intellectual disability. But that doesn’t change who I am.”

Cameron said she is looking forward to making even more new friends and taking new opportunities to make her career dreams come true of working with children in day care.

“Looking forward to internship at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital,” she said.

"She’s gone from a little girl to a young woman,” said Candace Cameron, Amber Cameron's aunt, describing the change she’s seen in her niece since starting college. “She’s getting to have a college experience that she never thought she’d have, because she has a disability.”

Amber Cameron has been living independently in an apartment near her aunt in Franklin. Candace Cameron has been looking after her niece since the death of her grandmother, who raised her, in 2014.

Candace Cameron said she has seen remarkable growth in her niece since she started at Vanderbilt.

“Just very independent, going to football games,” Candace Cameron said.

Amber Cameron drives herself every day from Franklin to Vanderbilt.

“I’m not surprised,” her mother said. “I’m really happy that you’re getting to do the things you’ve been able to do.”

The experience has both of them dreaming that the two-year certificate becomes a four-year degree.

“I really hope to see this program grow,” Candace Cameron said. “They don’t hand-hold. They help the kids become their best selves.”

“I just hope all colleges realize they can make a change in the world by letting special needs into their schools,” Amber Cameron said.

For Underwood, college has been no common experience.

“In fact, Vanderbilt was my dream college,” he said.

Underwood, 19, has Asperger syndrome. His parents and two brothers are all college graduates, so when his mother told him about the Next Steps program, Underwood called program director Tammy Day himself.

“He called Ms. Day on his own, and she worked so hard with him, encouraged him so much,” said Michael Towles, Underwood’s father.

His parents said after just one semester, Underwood’s improvement is impressive.

“I’ve seen a lot of positive changes,” said Geri Towles, his mother. “More so, social skills. Jamal went from being somewhat shy and insecure, graduating from a really small, Christian school, to being on a new campus, more sociable, willing to try new things, new activities, more things in life, and feeling at ease on a campus the size of Vanderbilt.”

“I’m looking forward to finding a place of my own, getting a job, a good job where I can make good money and take care of myself, buy what I need,” Underwood said.

“I kept saying to my parents years ago, ‘I’m going to go to law school someday,’” Underwood added. “Well, they kept saying to me, ‘That’s too expensive, Jamal. I don’t think that’s going to happen.’ But look at me many years later. I’m at Vanderbilt. I’m in the Next Steps program. Now isn’t that something?”

Inclusive higher education is a new frontier for the special needs community, and the results at Vanderbilt are proving it pays off.

Across the United States, statistics show 20 to 30 percent of adults with disabilities have paid employment.

Next Steps now has five classes who have graduated, and 86 percent of them have paid work.

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