Benjamin Pelham, who is taking courses at South through PASSAGE USA, waits for the JagTran with friend and peer mentor Josh Overstreet.

Photo | Courtesy University of South Alabama

When Satsuma High School senior Keith Griffith received an acceptance letter from the University of South Alabama, a video of his reaction went viral across the country. A prom king and a captain of the bowling team, Griffith would be joining some of his friends for classes at USA, which in the past might have been out of reach for a student with Down syndrome.

Griffith was one of the first students to be selected for PASSAGE USA (Preparing All Students Socially and Academically for Gainful Employment) — a  two-year, non-degree certificate program serving students ages 18 to 25 with diagnosed intellectual disabilities. It was the first of its kind in Alabama when it began at USA last January.

Special Education Professor Abigail Baxter oversees PASSAGE and said USA uses volunteer students to serve as mentors for those in the program. While accomodations are made for those who need them, Baxter said PASSAGE students take the same classes and do the same work as their peers.

“We try very hard to make their experience as similar to that of a typically developing student as we can,” she added. “With our assistance, they identify classes they would like to take. They attend those classes, they do class projects, they do class readings and participate in discussions but they’re not receiving academic credit.”

While PASSAGE doesn’t end with a college degree, students receive a certificate and an official college transcript that shows the amount of “contact hours” and the grades they received in each of the classes they took at South.

There are currently six students enrolled in PASSAGE USA. Most are from the Mobile area and live at home, though Baxter said there’s been interest from students in Fairhope, Birmingham and Mississippi as well. In all, USA hopes to add 10 more students in the fall.

“In the past, if they weren’t in college, most of these kids got out of high school and were on their own to find employment, so most of them were sitting home doing pretty much nothing,” she said. “Their peers had gone off to college and there weren’t a lot of people for them to hang out with or have social relationships with. This is a gap that has existed for a while.”

Baxter said data on employment for people with intellectual disabilities suggests close to 50 percent don’t have a job at all within five years of leaving high school, which is why PASSAGE isn’t just about about giving participants a fun college experience.

In addition to the classes they select, participants take courses to develop independent living and jobs skills. They also work an average of eight hours per week in campus offices, and eventually transition to off-campus settings through USA’s community partnerships.

Baxter said the ultimate goal is employability and the work experience students gain at USA to turn into paid employment in the last two semesters of the program, and hopefully beyond.

“College is an important part of all of our development as people because that’s how we develop our independence,” she said. “So, they’re having a good time, but they’re learning, and every one of the parents will tell us about the progress their child has made since starting the program.”

Baxter said PASSAGE has been a benefit for USA’s entire student community because it creates an exposure and acceptance of those who are “differently abled” and provides great hands-on training experience for students studying special education.

Still, Baxter said the students who enjoy PASSAGE the most are the participants themselves.

“I think the smile on Keith’s face says it all. These students want to come here,” she said. “One of the students we’ve accepted for next year got her letter of acceptance and has just been carrying it around her high school showing everyone because she just so excited about the opportunity.”

Currently, PASSAGE is funded through 2020 by a grant from the United States Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education, though Baxter said her team at USA is working hard to make the program self-sustaining if federal funding dries up.

The university does accept donations specifically for the program, and some of the students have been awarded scholarships directly. For instance, after his acceptance went viral online, Griffith received the local Treadwell Foundation scholarship.

Anyone interested in applying to the PASSAGE program can email passageusa@southalabama.edu for further information and a full application packet. There is also additional information on the program available through USA’s website.