ClemsonLIFE offers collegiate immersion for students with intellectual disabilities
By April A. Morris
“When parents have a young child who is diagnosed with an intellectual disability, they are not typically encouraged to start a college fund,” says Sarah Sorrells, employment coordinator for Clemson University’s ClemsonLIFE program. This reality, however, is something that educators at ClemsonLIFE aim to change.
ClemsonLIFE is an innovative program that offers a post-secondary educational experience for high-functioning students with intellectual disabilities. What makes ClemsonLIFE unique is that it is one of a handful of programs that gives students an essential component of the ultimate college experience: living on campus.
Like other Clemson students, ClemsonLIFE participants attend classes, eat in the dining hall, ride the city bus, and participate in extracurricular activities. They attend several regular classes along with custom-tailored class meetings, where they learn social skills, independent living, and traditional subjects like math and literature. “We treat our classes like regular college classes,” says Sorrells. Students are required to participate and keep up with material—something that pupils in self-contained high school classes may not have always been expected to do, she says. They also learn skills that every college student should know, like how to interview for a job and financial budgeting.
In addition to the staff, ClemsonLIFE students have a support system of dedicated volunteer “buddies” who serve as tutors, fitness partners, and dining companions. ClemsonLIFE students have to do their own cooking, cleaning, laundry, and hold a job. The goal of the program is to equip graduates to live independently. After their first two semesters, students move to off-campus housing.
And does the immersive college experience work? Sorrells says many students blossom. One parent reported that her daughter had cooked, cleaned, and showed newfound confidence after her first semester. Another student who was very shy and self-conscious about talking with others was initiating conversations during a visit home. And though ClemsonLIFE began just four years ago, the program (now donation- and parent-funded) has grown from 4 to 18 participants.
Though students don’t leave ClemsonLIFE with a bachelor’s degree, they gain new life skills and a personal portfolio, not to mention a life-changing college experience—just like their peers.