Four graduates of the nation’s first degree program for students with developmental disabilities made history June 13 during the Bellevue Community College commencement ceremony.
Bergen Delisi, Leah Brand, Anna Harnois and Trent Marshall were the first students to receive an Associate of Occupational and Life Skills (AOLS) degree for successfully completing a 90-credt curriculum consisting of college-level courses as part of the Venture program.
The accredited AOLS degree is the first and only one of its kind in the nation that caters to students with learning, cognitive and intellectual challenges. The four-year program integrates academic, workplace, social, and life skills to better prepare students for independence and employment.
Securing a job at Skills Incorporated in Ballard, AOLS graduate Delisi of Bellevue is both excited and nervous for life after graduation.
“I’m half and half,” Delisi said, who has been part of the program since the beginning. “I’m excited about my job but I’m nervous because everybody here seems like a family, meaning everyone knows everyone’s interests and everyone’s ability.”
Prior to 1999, post-secondary options for pursuing a higher education were nearly nonexistent for individuals with developmental disabilities. A group of local parents reached out to BCC and together formulated what is now the Venture program.
The program has 53 students enrolled and a staff of eight teachers with various training and special education experience. Program Director Mary Allason emphasizes that although the program only requires the student have an IQ of 70 and reading, writing, and math skills of the fourth grade level, many students exceed those requirements.
“Everyone has some form of disability and some have multiple forms so when we’re in the classroom it’s a matter of determining where each individual student is at and how to best teach them,” Allason explained. “It’s all part of the discovery process.”
The students in the program have a variety of disabilities including Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder and other learningchallenges.
“One thing I don’t ever want anyone to think is that it’s a certain type of disability that you have to have or cannot have to be in the program; that’s not our criteria,” Allason said. “The only criteria is that the student has to be able to absorb the material and we’ll work with them to ensure they get the most out of the program that they can.”
To cater to the variety of learning styles and abilities that make up the classroom, the teachers use a hands-on learning approach and repetitive instruction to help the students remember the course matter. The classrooms also reflect a social environment where student interaction is encouraged. The general degree is geared to help the students become more self-sufficient where they learn about themselves, their disabilities, talents and skills.
Hoping to have a career that involves working with children, Harnois interned at a daycare during her last year in the Venture program.
“Right now I have a love for childcare,” Harnois said. “I like being around little kids so I’d love to work in a daycare center. I did the internship so I could get a feel for what it was like and I really had a good time.”
During their four years in the program, the students explore and define their career pathway and build a portfolio along the way.
Marshall has been with the program since 2001 and said he is excited to graduate and pursue something other than school. He works for Target and plans to pursue a career in customer service.
Fellow graduate Brand interned at the Juvenile Probation Department Center of King County and is planning to continue with her education at another community college to pursue a para-legal certificate.
The AOLS degree helps to prepare the students for the workplace by covering generalized subjects such as social studies, science, math and writing along with additional courses that cover global perspective, citizenship and volunteering.
“Their focus is general in nature because they aren’t going to have a minor or a major, but also it’s specific because we are gearing them to be able to make decisions for themselves and to have an understanding of how to advocate for themselves. Everyone will walk out of here with a different level of self-sufficiency based on the level of disability that they maintain,” Allason explained. “Some students will not be able to live on their own and those students who will have to live at home or in an assisted facility for the rest of their lives will live more independently in that atmosphere.”
Lindsay Larin can be reached at email@example.com or 425-453-4602.