- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 23, 2009

CITIZEN JOURNALISM

The speaker’s fingers twined nervously through her curly brown ponytail as 150 people listened. “I have always had dreams, since I was a little girl. … I dreamed about going to college like my twin sisters.”

The dreamer, 23-year-old Melissa Gurman, was diagnosed with information processing delays when she was just 17 months old, and later with attention deficit hyperactive disorder and performance anxiety. She is considered intellectually disabled.

But in May, she graduated from George Mason University’s Mason Learning Into Future Environments (LIFE) program. Four years at the college have given her a long list of achievements, including mastering her fear of public speaking.

“I have accomplished my college dream,” she told friends, family and teachers at a senior recognition banquet.

This year, five students graduated from the LIFE program, which provides postsecondary education and job training for students with intellectual disabilities, whose IQs are usually 70 or below. Designed to help participants transition to independent living, the program accepts students with all types of intellectual disabilities, at varying levels of aptitude.

“At the very least, depending on where they enter, if we bring [them] up to reading signs or directions, we’ve really given that student a new lease on life,” said Heidi Graff, director of the program.

Mason LIFE focuses on basic literacy and math and offers courses on theater, horticulture and current events. Students also learn life skills, such as stove-top cooking and riding the Metro. And they can choose to live on campus in dormitories - another of Miss Gurman’s dreams.

Her mother, Jean Gurman, said her daughter didn’t even want to come home in the first two weeks.

“You took to it like a fish to water,” she told her daughter. “I was the one who was lonesome, to be honest with you.”

Now, Miss Gurman can easily lead her mother around GMU’s winding sidewalks to show off her classrooms, workplaces, dorm and dining areas. She strides forward confidently, navigating paths and stairs without hesitation. She’s only been lost a couple times her entire college experience.

“To me that’s the most important - the springboard to independent living,” Mrs. Gurman said.

During her time at George Mason, Miss Gurman worked several campus jobs, took electric guitar lessons, comforted a homesick classmate, helped freshmen find their way to their new dorms and, despite her performance anxiety, audited a public speaking class given for the average student body.

“She’s just grown so much in that way, to have the composure to get up in front of a group and talk about where she wants to go with her life,” Ms. Graff said.

The Gurmans discovered the LIFE program through a friend who attended. But Mason LIFE isn’t for everyone. Tuition costs $16,000 a year, not including room and board. And until recently, students with intellectual disabilities were ineligible for federal loans or scholarships for postsecondary education. That will change as soon as authorities iron out rules for the Higher Education Opportunity Act, passed in 2008.

An estimated 200 similar programs have sprung up across the nation, most within the past 10 years, said Debra Hart, of the Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. ICI is surveying those programs.

Thus far, research shows students with intellectual disabilities who receive some form of postsecondary education are more likely to land a job than those who don’t. In addition, they earn significantly higher pay.

Mason LIFE graduates work for employers such as T.J. Maxx, Audi and the World Bank.

Miss Gurman is still hunting for a job. She currently works part time at an animal shelter but wants more hours, hopefully at a dog day-care center.

And her dreams don’t stop there. In the next few years, she wants to travel to Israel and learn to drive. The first dream will take “time and perseverance,” she said. But she’s already working on the second dream - Miss Gurman has her learner’s permit and is studying for the test.

“She has no fear,” her mother said.

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