Students Step Forward into the Working World through Individualized Internships at GCC

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Often, when colleges offer internships, students are rotated through a series of pre-existing internship opportunities, but not students in Gateway Community College’s (GCC) Step Forward Program. Jaime French, the director of GCC’s transition program for young adults with mild cognitive disabilities, asks students, “What do you want to learn about? Where would you like to work one day?” and she and her staff set out to find an internship that matches well. Thanks to the increasing involvement of businesses, social service agencies and independent contractors in the Greater New Haven community, the internship program is blossoming. 

All 16 students in the non-credit, 10-month transition program for young adults, ages 18-21, have been placed in a community or campus-based work experience.

“I try to find an experience that ties into the students’ interests as well as to the skills they each bring and the skills they need to develop,” French said. “It can be challenging to find just the right place but there are many times when the stars align in such a way that you get goose bumps.”

French said this experience is vitally important for young people with cognitive disabilities in a difficult job market. Many Americans with disabilities are struggling to access employment opportunities, according to a 2011 report by Sharon Lewis, commissioner of the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The report states that the proportion of the population of people with disabilities who are employed is estimated to be 17 percent, compared to 63 percent for people without disabilities.

“We have such wonderful support from the whole Gateway community as well as the Greater New Haven community,” French said. “We want that to continue to grow.”

Several Step Forward students work at Gateway, in the Library and Learning Commons and delivering mail for the college. Students are interning at an automotive firm, a hardware store, a YMCA and a public library. One student who arranges flowers at a florist, has shown such talent, her employers have encouraged her to take a floral arranging course. A number of students work at Ashlar Village, a continuing care retirement community in Wallingford, in the café, the kitchen and the recreation center.

GCC’s Step Forward I program features vocational exploration and career planning, job search essentials, personal finances, interpersonal and workplace communications, self-advocacy and disability awareness as well as nutrition and fitness. French said the goals are to assist students with their transition to college and to progress through academic programs. Step Forward also features a High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder Program, one of few such programs in the state, designed to create an additional level of support for students on the autism spectrum.

Over time, French said, levels of support are phased out as the students become increasingly independent. Most of the students are still under the auspices of their high school district which covers the cost of the program and transportation. Step Forward II focused on the career objectives students  have identified thanks to their college coursework and the internship. Students are required to attend non-credit seminars to enhance their study, time management and organizational skills.

“The internships really help reinforce all of the skills we work on in the classroom,” French said. “Our students learn what it means to be part of the working world, about getting to work on time, about doing the job, not only the parts that they enjoy but all of what the job entails. The employers often become very supportive mentors."

See related article, Step Forward Internship Inspires Student's Passion for Filmmaking, Environment.