Before campus went online, Amber Carmody, a junior neuroscience major, and Michael McIntyre, a first-year student in UT Knoxville’s FUTURE Postsecondary Education program, kept the same tradition after every one of their study sessions. They’d walk over to Starbucks in the Student Union, where McIntyre would order a lemon pound cake and a venti ice water, and hang out with friends.
The last time they went to Starbucks together, McIntyre—a Disney fanatic who can recite the lines to most of his favorite films verbatim—assigned everyone in the group a cartoon character based on their names.
“Michael couldn’t think of a Disney character for me, so I got to be Amber, an alien golden retriever from Scooby-Doo,” Carmody says. “That’s another of his favorites.”
Carmody is one of about a hundred undergraduate and graduate students who serve as peer mentors for the 20 students in the FUTURE program. Each peer mentor submits a schedule at the beginning of the academic year and is paired with a student for weekly shifts where they provide everything from academic tutoring, in-class support, and job coaching to serving as a lunch or workout buddy.
“The mentor’s role is essential to supporting the students’ academic, social, emotional, and independent-living goals,” says Emma Burgin, FUTURE program coordinator.
Housed in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences, FUTURE was founded in 2011 as part of a federal grant to promote inclusive education. In eight years, it has become a national model for how to provide young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities with access to postsecondary education.
Before COVID-19, students were on campus every week for 40 hours, divided between specially designed FUTURE classes, undergraduate academic and physical education courses which they audit as noncredit students, and internships. After two years in the program, they graduate with a vocational certificate.
At the core of the program’s success are the efforts of its peer mentors. Filling upwards of 35 shifts daily for the program’s 20 students, mentors come from all academic backgrounds. Some participate as part of a course, Service–Learning with Students with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. But the vast majority are volunteers who receive no course credit.
With the program’s recent transition online, peer mentors have been finding new ways to serve the academic and social needs of the students.
“It’s heartbreaking not to see them every day, but I’ve reassured our parents that students are not going to be homeschooled,” says Burgin.
“These are some of the most motivated students on campus, and they’re up for any challenge. They still have the same support today that they did before.”
Whereas before Carmody met with McIntyre on campus and at Starbucks, they now log on together to Canvas, UT’s learning management system, to view McIntyre’s assignments for the week. Afterward, they hop on to a FaceTime call so Carmody can clarify the instructions. Like all FUTURE students, McIntyre maintains a full load of course work, with FUTURE classes in career and life planning, digital literacy, and life skills along with audited courses in undergraduate stress management, first-year studies, and nutrition.
Mentors are able to sit in on FUTURE classes held over Zoom. For the audited courses, they set up concurrent FaceTime calls so their student can mute their Zoom audio and ask for clarification any time they need it.
“People don’t realize it, but most of these students are really good with technology,” Carmody says. “Michael and I text, FaceTime, and send each other snaps [Snapchat messages] every day.”
Houston House, a sophomore special education major from Springfield, Tennessee, is conducting two to three weekly study sessions with FUTURE student Aley Sasport over FaceTime. Before every session he logs into a Google Drive folder to find the notes from their previous session so he knows where they left off.
The first week back, their conversation trailed beyond academics to other parts of their lives. While working on a plan for Sasport’s sociology midterm project about Puerto Rico, they talked about keeping busy at home by playing Minecraft—one of their many shared interests. (Others include superheroes and the television show Adventure Time.) House plays on PC, while Sasport plays on a console.
“We were trying to figure out a way to play multiplayer,” House says.
Finding new ways to hang out allows the two to stay connected.
“So much of college can be isolating,” House says. “It’s easy to just focus on yourself and your classes. Working together helps us keep up the social aspect of our education.”
The energy that peer mentors like Carmody and House bring to FUTURE is one of the reasons Leslie Nack—a parent whose son, Mikie, is in the program—wasn’t worried when she heard that classes would remain online through the end of the semester. She has since watched her son have his study sessions over FaceTime and Zoom into classes from home.
“It’s really incredible to me that you have students who are figuring out their own transition online, and they’re still calling and taking this extra time to make sure our students have all they need,” Nack says.
While amazing, it wasn’t all that surprising for Nack. She witnessed the mentors’ commitment firsthand last fall when her family hosted a Halloween party for all FUTURE students at their home. One by one, mentors and program staff, including Carmody and Burgin, started showing up.
“It’s like, ‘You’re not on the clock—what are you guys doing here?'” Nack recalls. “A party at a parent’s house isn’t a mandatory activity for them. It was their choice to show up, and they made it even more fun.”
Joining them at the party were several members of the UT chapter of Best Buddies, an organization that works to develop one-to-one inclusive friendships on campus. Its efforts closely align with those of peer mentors—many of whom also serve as buddies on top of their other duties.
Best Buddies includes former and incoming FUTURE students in its programming, which typically consists of a group meeting and a group activity each month. With its biggest events either canceled or postponed, however, it has increased its programming to seven days a week through the end of the semester.
“We’re taking this virtual experience super seriously,” says Allie Marcom, a senior communication studies major from Memphis and president of the UT chapter.
The schedule includes workouts on Mondays, a buddy pair Instagram takeover on Wednesdays, and cooking and crafts on Fridays, with other trainings, meetings, and activities filling the other days.
Like many other programs on campus, FUTURE will be moving some of its nonacademic activities online too.
“The whole point of FUTURE is to be included,” Burgin says. “We want our students to stay visible even as we adjust to a new environment.”
Together, peer mentors and buddies make that visibility a reality for FUTURE students like McIntyre, Sasport, and Kredich.
“Because of FUTURE my son is now a peer of the best and brightest students in the state,” says Nack. “UT students are going to run businesses, serve in our government, and be our nurses and doctors and teachers. When they have friends like Mikie or Alex [Cole] or Coulter [Eldridge], it’s going to change the way they view them. That’s the beauty of the program—it’s introducing a wide variety of people to a wide variety of people on both sides. Everybody benefits.”
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