When Andrew Carlyle was an infant, a congenital heart defect which led to a stroke, seriously affected his intellectual capacity, so much so that the child’s first neurologist told his parents, Greg and Ann Maria, that Andrew would likely never learn to speak or walk.
On Tuesday, 20-year-old Andrew Carlyle did both, mesmerizing his audience at the Columbus Rotary Club at Lion Hills Center.
Tuesday’s program, introduced by Greg Carlyle, a Rotarian who is the headmaster at Heritage Academy, informed Rotarians about Mississippi State’s ACCESS program for young adults who have intellectual disabilities. Now in its sixth year, ACCESS provides a range of services for 16 students who live, learn and participate in a college environment.
The MSU ACCESS program offers an inclusive plan to promote the successful transition of students with intellectual disabilities into higher education. These students have a desire to continue academic, career and technical, and independent living instruction in order to prepare for gainful employment. Students go to classes, earn credits, work and participate in campus events all while learning the skills they need to live a more independent lifestyle.
Program director Julie Capella noted while there are roughly 200 programs to help college-age students with intellectual disabilities around the country, MSU’s is one of just 13 to offer a four-year residential program, a rare opportunity for those students who want to continue their education beyond high school.
“ACCESS is for students who have fallen between the cracks,'” Capella said. “They can do more. They can be more independent. They can work, but they are not eligible to meet all the admission requirements and that closes the door for so many of them.”
ACCESS opens those doors for the students and for their parents, who Capella calls the “real heroes” of the program.
“It’s difficult for them,” she said. “If your child has never spent a night away from home and all of the sudden they are living in a residence hall, navigating a campus of 20,000 students, that has to be a hard thing to do for any parent, especially for a parent of a student with intellectual disabilities.”
Capella broke done how MSU’s ACCESS program works and all that it has to offer.
But the best testimonials come from the students themselves.
“Our students love to talk,” Capella said, before turning over the podium to Andrew Carlyle.
Carlyle, a freshman who has been in the program for just three months, used a Power Point presentation to talk about all the program has done for him, noting that he most enjoys living on his own, making his own decisions, making friends and meeting MSU athletes — “I was a fan of Mississippi State since I was a little kid,” he said.
Capella said ACCESS is poised to make a significant leap forward after being designated by the U.S. Department of Education earlier this year as a comprehensive transition program, which opens the door to grants and other financial help that had prevented many students from being able to enroll. The MSU program is one of just 50 in the nation with that designation.
“Until this year, students in our program couldn’t qualify for financial assistance because they didn’t meet the academic qualifications for admission,” Capella said. “Now, because of this certification, students are eligible for Pell Grants and other financial aid. It opened the door to state agencies for help. The Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services and the Mississippi Department of Human Services provide tuition assistance and a major part of room and board.
“That’s huge. Tuition is $17,500 alone,” she added. “So it was a real obstacle. I had one parent tell me that she was working three jobs just to send her child to the program. She won’t have to do that anymore.”
Greg Carlyle noted with pride that his son earned a high school diploma at Caledonia High School rather than a certificate that many intellectually disabled students receive. His desire to learn, Greg said, made ACCESS an obvious choice.
“In three months, we’ve seen dramatic changes in Andrew’s confidence and independence,” Greg said. “It’s everything we hoped it would be.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]