SCHENECTADY -- On a recent weekday morning, SUNY Schenectady students Megan Marchena, Sean Murphy and James Cerny discussed life together as roommates.
They make dinner together twice a week – with Taco Tuesdays universally popular – and tease one another over who makes the bigger mess. The loud music, however, mostly comes from outside their apartment.
“The only people who play music are upstairs,” Murphy said.
But Murphy, who is studying music production, plays the guitar. What about Murphy's guitar skills, his roommates were asked.
“It's all right,” Cerny said matter-of-factly. “He's very average.”
In what was clearly not the first time Marchena rephrased what Cerny put bluntly, she stepped in to lend Cerny and Murphy a little cover.
“James is very honest,” Marchena said. “Too honest.”
The trio of roommates are the first students to join the Career Next program at SUNY Schenectady. Run by Albany-based nonprofit Living Resources, Career Next was designed to help students with autism or other special education needs manage the independence and academic challenges of college life.
Living Resources for the past 14 years has managed a similar program at The College of Saint Rose called the College Experience. That program works with students with developmental disabilities, providing the students support to work through an academic certificate program and transition to independent living. The new program at SUNY Schenectady is more targeted to students seeking college degrees and a transition to a four-year college or career.
“Some students need extra assistance colleges aren't prepared to offer them,” said Jen Richard, assistant executive director in charge of the college programs at Living Resources.
The organization in January launched the inaugural group of students at SUNY Schenectady. They plan to enroll new students into the program each semester, expanding staffing as the student needs grow. The College of Saint Rose program has grown to 40 students in its 14 years.
“We are looking for students who want to be here, who want to finish college and who are going to put the work in,” Richard said.
Colleen Dergosits, director of admissions for the two college programs, meets with families as early as a student's junior year in high school to discuss what the programs offer. She said there are many students who received special education and other support while in primary and secondary school but struggle to transition to college, where expectations are higher, independence is essential and navigating they system can be much more complicated.
“A lot of students want to move out of mom and dad's house, but a lot of students need more support,” Dergosits said. “Sometimes people aren't always ready out of high school, sometimes they are.”
Jen Mainello works as the academic coordinator for the three Career Next students at SUNY Schenectady, helping keep the students on track both in individual classes and the broader goal of completing a college program. The students meet with Mainello twice a week for a two-hour period for students to study, finish assignments, set up meetings with professors or make plans with Mainello. The program has a classroom space on the second floor of the library, home base for Mainello and the students.
“It's honestly for them to work on whatever they need,” Mainello said. “From something at the financial aid office, something academic to let's go talk to a counselor about something ... I'm there to think outside the box.”
But Mainello provides a much wider net of academic support, outlining at the beginning of the semester what big projects and assignments await students, keeping track of the class syllabuses and staying in touch with their professors. She's part mentor, part tutor, part academic adviser, filling whatever roll a student needs of her to help them progress through school.
“For the most part, they are pretty much on top of their schoolwork,” Mainello said. “Week-by-week we check on it.”
Mainello also serves as a backstop in ensuring the students receive the testing or other accommodations their special needs mandate the college provide them. But unlike in high school, where schools have the legal responsibility to make sure students are provided with accommodations they need, in college students have to play a more active roll in making sure their needs are met.
“They set those services up, but they don't necessarily utilize them,” Mainello said. “So I'm there as a reminder.”
The students' shared apartment is a two-minute walk from class, with residential arrangements built in to the program. The three students have a suite-style apartment at College Suites, sharing a kitchen and common room with each getting their own room. A resident assistant drops by the apartment each evening to help with dinner and homework and other household tasks.
“She'll help the boys with cleaning,” Marchena said.
The program infuses other life-skills development into the regular day of the students. They help with navigation skills and how to use public transportation, meal planning and grocery shopping and basic cooking skills. Cerny, in particular, likes to experiment in the kitchen.
“I was planning on putting grapes on my spaghetti,” he said.
“We had to stop that,” Marchena said. “We said: 'You can't do that buddy.'”
A schedule of meals hangs on the fridge, and the students often cook dinner together. Elsewhere in the apartment, a note hung as a reminder to Cerny and Murphy: “Clean bathroom after dinner.”
The program is actively recruiting more students to join Career Next, but Richard and Dergosits said attracting students won't be a big challenge. College can be difficult for every student and those with extra barriers often find it difficult to not get lost.
“We can service people at varying levels [of need] and really break it down and work with them,” Richard said. “There's a huge need and very few programs like this out there.”
“Without extra layers of support services, kids struggle to navigate the college world, because it is so different here,” Dergosits said.
Both Cerny and Marchena started different college programs but weren't able to stay on track without the kind of extra support offered through Career Next.
“I had to do all the work on my own; I kind of got lost, it's very complicated,” Cerny said of his previous college experience. “The support I needed and the tutoring didn't show up as promised.”
“I just didn't get the help I'm getting now,” Marchena said of her prior college experience.
Murphy said the support goes a long way in helping him as he strikes out on a new challenge.
“They can talk to us not only as their jobs but as friends too,” Murphy said. “They help make us feel more comfortable in a new situation.”