State funds groundbreaking college-going program for students with disabilities

Published February 7, 2023

Young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities will get to enjoy a college-going experience at Cal State Long Beach and five other state universities thanks to a $710,000 state grant years in the making.

At Cal State Long Beach, the funds will formalize and expand Think Beach, a groundbreaking initiative for the campus that the College of Education launched earlier this academic year.

The more than $700,000 from the California Department of Developmental Services will fund career- and life-preparation programs at six campuses: Cal State Long Beach, San Jose State, CSU San Marcos, CSU Northridge, San Francisco State and CSU East Bay. They make up the nearly 2-year-old California Inclusive College Alliance.

Cal State Long Beach will lead the six-campus initiative, including reporting on program results.

The state grant announcement is the first major breakthrough in a years-long effort by Cal State Long Beach faculty members Drs. Kristin Powers and Kelli Sanderson and their CSU partners to secure outside funding for a college-going program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities such as autism. They have also been trying to advance state legislation that would commit state dollars to their efforts.

They believe people with disabilities deserve the same opportunity to go to college — enroll in classes, learn employable skills and meet new people — as people without disabilities. And, they say, programs like Think Beach will actually save taxpayers money.

“The research is very strong. People with ID who go to college are employed at a higher rate, they are employed for more money, and they have greater independence, all of which saves the state money. Lots of money,” said Powers, a professor in the Advanced Studies in Education and Counseling Department. “And it’s the right thing to do.”

Students in Think Beach pose for a group photo at a bowling alley.
Students and peer mentors in Cal State Long Beach’s Think Beach program go bowling. A new state grant will formalize and expand the pilot, which launched earlier this academic year. Pictured: Julieta Ponce (mentee), Ronald Flores (mentee), D’yannae Mayfield (mentee), Chris Brake (mentee), Steven Perez (mentee), Giulia Sarti (mentor), and Amy Tapia (mentor). 

The California Inclusive College Alliance will use the money to prepare students for “competitive integrated employment” by helping them define personal, academic and professional goals, take college courses with students who don’t have disabilities, build friendships, enjoy campus life, and participate in internships and other work-based training. They will receive a certificate after completing the program.

All six state universities will admit about four students with intellectual disabilities this fall with the goal of growing the program in subsequent years. They will recruit and train college students to serve as peer mentors and work with college faculty to provide accommodations for ID pupils.

Those pupils will enroll in at least two courses per semester through Open University. At Cal State Long Beach this fall, those will be nutrition and career-readiness courses. In the spring, one will likely be a child development course to accommodate a potential student interested in working as a preschool aide.

Currently, Cal State Long Beach’s Think Beach, Cal State Northridge’s Explorers and San Francisco State’s Inclusion Project programs already have some of these components in place.

“We’ve learned from other existing programs that it’s best to start small and do it right,” Sanderson said of the plans for students in 2023-2024. “And we want to make sure they’re having a great experience.”

Powers and Sanderson launched a pilot form of Think Beach with existing resources and volunteer help this year.

Think Beach matched up six students in Long Beach Unified School District’s Adult Community Transition Program with six students in the College of Education’s undergraduate and graduate programs. They meet up for mentoring sessions and attend weekly workshops on campus together on topics such as hygiene, cooking and managing healthy friendships.

Students in Think Beach cut vegetables in a cooking class.
Think Beach students participated in life-skills workshops including a cooking class this year. Pictured are mentee Steven Perez and mentor Ashley Harris. In the fall, participants will take nutrition and career-readiness courses at Cal State Long Beach.

Cal State Long Beach Professor Emeritus Sue Leonard-Giesen recently led the healthy friendships workshop on a volunteer basis. She’s been advocating for more educational opportunities for intellectually disabled students for years.

“For young people with disabilities to be full participants in our society, they have to have opportunities that every young person has,” she said.

And that doesn’t just mean taking classes and learning new skills but interacting and making friends with a wider range of people, notably people outside the disabled community, she said.

“We no longer segregate, legally, any other group of people. You can’t segregate by gender, by race, by ethnicity,” Leonard-Giesen said. “And yet we continue to segregate in our public schools by disability and ability. And I think it’s not right.”