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Program increases support for students with disabilities

Khanh Tran Peer Mentor
Khanh Tran, left, is one of several UNG Peer Mentors, who work with students with disabilities by providing assistance, guidance, and friendship to ease their transition into college life.

Through a $5,000 Presidential Innovation Award, the First Year Foundation program at the University of North Georgia's (UNG) Gainesville Campus is augmenting its already successful support services for students with disabilities to further improve the students' retention and completion rates.

National studies have shown that, overall, students with disabilities are less successful at completing their college goals than students without disabilities. In a national sample of high school students from the class of 2005, only 40.7 percent of students with disabilities working toward any type of postsecondary credential graduated or received a degree, compared to 52.4 percent of the students without disabilities, according to a study by the College & Career Readiness & Success Center.

"Students with disabilities face many of the same challenges to completing a degree as any other student. However, adjusting to college life may be a hurdle for them because they are used to how things worked in high school," said Jennifer Bennett, C-Print captionist — a person who inserts text of spoken information into software transmitting the text onto a display screen — and peer mentor coordinator for Student Disability Services. "College life challenges you to be more independent, and for students with disabilities, stress is often a factor when it comes to retention and completion rates. The nature of a student's disability may affect how they perform in classes as well as how many classes they choose to take. Their first semester is crucial because students can feel so overwhelmed they decide to drop out."

Bennett is also a C-Print captionist. These specialists input spoken information into software that displays the speech as digital text on large screens, to help hearing-impaired audience members in following presentations, speeches and other events.

The $5,000 award is one of 20 presented by UNG President Bonita C. Jacobs this year to support innovative faculty and staff activities and academic programs that encourage student success and academic excellence. Also awarded this academic year were six $25,000 Presidential Semester Scholar Awards and six $10,000 Presidential Summer Scholar Awards.

UNG's First Year Foundation will hold a two-day summer workshop to introduce incoming freshmen with disabilities to each other and their peer mentors. The mentors will coordinate monthly, one-on-one meetings during the academic year to provide additional support. The money will also fund social events for the students and the adoption of StrengthsQuest materials to assist students in identifying their personality strengths and applying them to their academic and personal lives.

The project supports the university's strategic plan and the Complete College Georgia initiative by seeking to improve retention of students.

UNG student Khanh Tran, who serves as a peer mentor, said that most of the students who come to the program are freshmen who are unfamiliar with and a little shy about college life. They don't know where to start or how to learn and develop using the services colleges offer.

"Understanding these factors, I share my experiences and introduce these students to new information and tools," Tran said. "I witness the development of their confidence and activeness, and their visions of what they want to do in the future. Some also become actively involved in student organizations and even hold leadership positions. These are wonderful signs telling us that our program is a useful tool in helping the students."

Bennett said that for the students, knowing they have peer mentors and staff support gives them an important "I-can-do-it" feeling.

"Knowing that you have people who know your name, remember details of your life and care about how your classes are going gives you, as a student, that extra push to keep going, even when things get tough," she said.

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