COBLESKILL — Coty Rulison, a 27-year-old Gloversville native who lives with Asperger’s, ADHD and mild schizophrenia, has dreamed of going to SUNY Cobleskill since he was in middle school. A gardener and lover of the outdoors, he’s interested in finding work with the Department of Environmental Conservation or as a park ranger specializing in forestry, and he’s always been drawn to the hands-on coursework of Cobleskill’s Wildlife Management program.
“I’m a very physical and visual learner,” Rulison said. “Rather than going to a school that they’d rather sit you down for a lecture or sit you in a lab that’s all inside, I’d rather actually be going out and doing things.”
This fall, Rulison will get his chance to attend Cobleskill as one of four students to enroll as part of a new partnership with Transitions, an Arc Lexington program with its flagship facility in Mayfield that prepares teens and young adults with autism and learning differences for college, careers and life.
The new partnership is part of a larger paradigm shift around an approach for students with disabilities that Cobleskill President Marion Terenzio, who happens to be the co-chair of the SUNY system’s Empowering Students With Disability Task Force, says she’d like to see adopted system-wide.
“If we’re truly going to empower students, a new paradigm is necessary. The new paradigm is to say you don’t look at a student through the eyes of having a deficit. You’ve got to look at students through the eyes of being ably different, with the same aspirations and intellect as in anybody else,” Terenzio said. “Students shouldn’t have to knock on the door to say, ‘Hey, I have a disability, how can you help?’ The new approach should be to say that everyone is welcome.”
Terenzio said supports for students with disabilities currently vary from one SUNY institution to the next, and she said her task force is in the process of completing a framework and draft of recommendations that she expects to present formally by December.
But at Terenzio’s school, change is coming more quickly via the start of the partnership with Transitions this fall. As part of the collaboration, Transitions will have a dedicated classroom, with trained staff on-site daily, teaching and guiding students toward independence. The program will focus on skills ranging from organization, navigation and time management to career skills, and it will include residential support and peer mentorship. This learning comes on top of regular coursework.
“I consider Transitions as the wraparound support to attend college,” said Shaloni Winston, executive director at the Arc Lexington, which provides services and supports in Fulton, Albany and Schoharie counties to approximately 1,300 children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Winston started the Transitions program in 2015, partly as a response to her own daughter’s Turner Syndrome diagnosis at age 14.
The genetic condition, which results in a learning disability that affects everything from communication to concentration, “is like being in a foreign country when you understand what’s going on, but you don’t know the language,” Shaloni Winston explained. “You figure it out, but it’s pretty tough, and everything takes time.”
With community partnerships and experienced staff, Transitions features an individualized, hands-on curriculum, letting students cultivate their own independent lives.
Transitions has helped Rulison with everything from socializing to learning how to schedule appointments to getting his driver’s license.
“They’ve helped me through the downs, and then they’ve boosted me on my ups,” Rulison said. “When I first joined, I was very shy and avoided people. But since then, I’ve been doing presentations, I’ve been on the news.”
Partnering with SUNY Cobleskill, which Terenzio says emphasizes hands-on learning, was a natural fit for the Transitions program.
“We are a premier school of agriculture, and when you look at agriculture, you realize the importance of hands-on,” the college president said. “We say it’s using your heart, your head, and your hands, and our students leave here highly prepared to enter their own business or their world of work.”
While Priya Winston, 29, who has Turner Syndrome, was never a student in the Transitions program, she has been around it much of her life, beginning as an intern and currently serving as the program’s curriculum and clinical advisor. Winston, a licensed master’s level clinical social worker, is now a doctoral candidate in the field of social work at the University at Albany.
“Through the SUNY Cobleskill partnership, we can expect to see similar success stories right here with our students, and watch the students truly transform into incredible individuals that they were meant to be,” Shaloni Winston said.
Priya said attending a college that had a partnership like the new one between Cobleskill and Transitions would have been beneficial to her own undergraduate experience, because it would have more seamlessly integrated support services, removing some of the burden she often felt in needing to seek out help on her own.
The Transitions students at Cobleskill will complete coursework alongside other students — whether they are enrolled in a culinary arts or business program. But, the Transitions students will also take courses specifically geared toward helping them live independently.
For instance, Priya Winston will teach a course on self advocacy that she developed in collaboration with the Virginia Commonwealth University Autism Center for Excellence.
“I’m so thankful that [the students] will have something like this, which is an opportunity I didn’t have,” Priya Winston said. “They have so many strengths, and all they need is this support to thrive and be successful.”
New York state Assemblyman Chris Tague (R,C,I-Schoharie), said he hopes the partnership between Cobleskill and Transitions grows and gains traction.
“This is allowing the students to take over their own destiny, to be given the tools,” Tague said. “This is a model, a blueprint, not just for New York State, but across this world.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.