Schools for Children created Different Choices 2021, a virtual college & career transition fair specifically for students with IEPs, 504s and/or mental health challenges. The multi-day event at the end of October included the panel presentation Designing Your Own Path.
Students who have overcome learning and/or other social-emotional challenges look to their upcoming high school graduation with excitement and a well-earned sense of achievement. Mixed in with these emotions may also be a bit of trepidation. There are so many options available to them, and deciding which path to pursue can feel overwhelming. Do they:
- Attend a two-year or four-year college or university immediately?
- Work part-time while in school?
- Delay higher education for a year or more with a gap-year program?
- Begin an apprenticeship that leads to a career?
- Combine different options to achieve their goals?
The Designing Your Own Path panelists offered webinar participants expert advice on how to make a smoother transition from high school to whatever comes next.
Ziven Drake from Different Choices Fair partner the North Atlantic States Carpenters Training Fund shared, “There are billions of people in the world. There is no single or guaranteed path to success. So you need to explore to find the one (or ones) for you.” Ziven went on to share her varied path which included college, pharmacy tech certification, a gap year, pre-med work, a six-year stint in the military, and ended with her discovering her love for the trades through an apprenticeship program for industrial divers and pile drivers.
Syreeta Nolan, CEO of Disabled in Higher Ed and student disability advocate, added that while creating their personal path, students need to remember to take care of themselves. Syreeta stated that most students have obstacles to overcome in making the right educational and work choices. She added that disabled students often have additional societal barriers – often not of their own making. It is critical for them to never lose sight of their goals despite obstacles. Citing her own post-high school experience, Syreeta said that students with challenges may need more than two or four years to complete degree programs.
The path taken by Sara Van Eerde, social justice educator at Global Kids and gap-year specialist, was also varied and based on her passions. She became an LCSW and took advantage of programs in graduate school that allowed her to travel, study abroad, focus on mental health and pair it with climate activism, specifically to work with young people. She emphasized that none of these things were part of a “plan” she had, but just a matter of taking opportunities as they came her way.
Beacon College’s Alex Morris-Wood, who moderated the presentation, discussed his institution’s transition support program and addressed how the transition from high school to college or work – or a mixture of the two – is hard, is an adjustment, needs to include a student’s entire support system, and requires a certain amount of readiness. He emphasized skills, including executive function, emotional regulation, autonomy, conceptual thinking and more.
Alex also emphasized that it is important to advocate for yourself while in high school and then in your new environment. Both Syreeta and Angelique McGrue, special education coordinator at YouthBuild Charter School of California, strongly supported this point.
Ziven suggested a slightly different approach to readiness. “No one is ever ready,” she stated, “And sometimes you just make the step into the next thing, having done as much research into the option as possible and having a great deal of self-awareness to understand if this might be something you can commit to doing for a while.”
The Role of Support Systems Is Paramount
The role of parents in next steps after high school was also discussed a great deal. Angelique noted that parents or other caregivers need to be involved in IEP meetings and transition teams to support their students. While this approach is valuable overall, it’s less common for families to be highly-involved in students’ career vs. higher education choices.
Syreeta and others reminded webinar participants that there are a number of disability advocacy groups that are ready to help students with learning and mental health differences find their own advocacy voice. The well-respected disability advocate highly recommended that students get into virtual disability communities like her own #DisInHigherEd on Twitter and/or disability TikTok, to get hints from and help/support from, and learn from other disabled people who’ve either been through or are going through the same issues.