On a chilly Tuesday afternoon, Guild School student Leah* is busy whipping up some homemade mac n’ cheese in Middlesex Community College’s instructional kitchen. “It’s even better than Kraft,” she promises. Leah participates in the Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Initiative (ICEI) program at Middlesex, a dual enrollment opportunity for high school students with intellectual disabilities to take part in college-level courses and receive career support, educational coaches, peer mentors, and full access to the college’s clubs, student activities, and academic resources. Two Guild School students, Leah and Daniel*, are currently in the program.

Autism Spectrum News recently outlined the unique challenges students with autism and learning differences face during the transition to college, including the necessity of creating an advocacy plan and adapting to different teaching styles. At The Guild, teachers and vocational staff ensure that students participating in college courses are set up for success. We sat down with both students, along with Shawn Massak, Employee Services Manager, and Lauren Byron, Teacher Assistant, to discuss what this looks like and how higher education can become more accessible.

Leah and Daniel, can you tell us a little bit about the college courses you’re taking?

Leah: I’m taking Culinary Theory this spring. I’ve learned how to make sauces and soups with stocks and broths. I go to class each Tuesday, and I really look forward to it. I can’t wait to do some chicken in mushroom sauce soon. Last fall, I took a baking class.

Daniel: I’m taking Japanese right now. It’s very challenging to learn about a new culture and language. One word can mean multiple things in English, but each word means one thing in Japanese. There are also two different ways of communicating in Japanese, so how I would talk to you is different from how I would talk to my family. It’s tough because we have many different social boundaries, but they only have two.

What is your college workload like, and how has The Guild helped prepare you for this transition?

Leah: Work at The Guild helped me a lot with work for my college class. My professor has high expectations, and you must make sure you complete all of the assignments on time. Middlesex is supportive of all students – including students on the autism spectrum. I think they’re doing a great job.

Daniel: The course I’m in now is very challenging, but overall, it’s good. My professor is cool and very understanding. He likes to break things down and make it easier for us. There’s a lot of homework for the course.

Shawn: For college coursework, we work on organizational and study skills. I’ve found that it’s not necessarily the content that is most difficult; rather, it’s making sure the student is aware of homework due dates, upcoming exams and that they have notes to reference. We also work on employability skills: completing applications, preparing for interviews, and identifying community work options.

Lauren: Leah and I will review what the current week’s class will look like (kitchen vs. lecture) and what the topics will be (poultry, vegetables, knife cuts, soups, stocks, etc.) so she can prepare. We also discuss “class etiquette” and what will be expected from her socially in the classroom. Giving encouragement is the biggest way I can help Leah prepare for her college coursework since she has all the tools she needs for success!

How do you see the potential for ICEI or programs like it to expand? What do you think needs to change for college to become more inclusive?

Shawn: The ICEI program fulfills a need in our education system, but in an ideal world, colleges would offer more programming that is accessible and meaningful to individuals with disabilities. Many of our students would benefit from opportunities to have a college experience both in a classroom learning environment and from campus activities and resources. We want our students to learn about new subjects, become more independent, and meet other people in the same age group outside of our community.

Lauren: I think it’s important to give students involved with ICEI the ability to meet and talk about classes and their experiences. Allowing students to take comfort in knowing others have similar feelings is essential.

Leah and Daniel, what are your professional hopes for the future? 

Leah: I’d want to work in a restaurant as a chef. I could maybe own a restaurant or a bakery since I loved the baking class.

Daniel: I’m still figuring out what I want to do after graduating. I have some things I’m planning on doing – hopefully, after this semester, I can take some more culinary classes. I took Culinary Theory last year. I could see myself doing something with that in my future. 

*Pseudonyms are being used in this article to protect student privacy