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A Global Experience

Montclair State University Faculty and Students Learn About Disability Education and Share their Innovative Models Abroad

Posted in: College News and Events

Students with Dr. Bacon and Dr. Lalvani in Finland
The Montclair State University cohort outside Finland's Tampere University of Applied Sciences. The trip took the group to Helsinki to study the country's special and inclusive education techniques, practices, and policies.

This summer, students in Montclair State University education programs participated in a once-in-a-lifetime excursion designed to show how students with disabilities are educated in other parts of the world — and how they can help to change the programs they’ll be implementing in American schools for the better.

Alongside Montclair faculty members Jessica Bacon and Priya Lalvani (an associate professor and a professor, respectively, from the University’s Department of Teaching and Learning), 16 students participating in bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral-level programs, journeyed to Finland for an immersive 11-day program run, through the institution’s Office of Global Engagement.

The trip took the group to the country’s capital, Helsinki, and the city of Tampere, to study the country’s special and inclusive education techniques, practices, and policies. Students were able to meet with teachers and students to study their techniques. They also were able to visit an assisted living facility for people with intellectual disabilities, an art-based job placement center for people with intellectual disabilities, and participate in lectures with experts in the Finnish education system to learn more about the practices that have made the country an education leader.

“Finland’s education system has a reputation for its progressive nature, as well as student outcomes,” said Lalvani. “This trip presented a great opportunity for our faculty and students at Montclair to engage in explorations of inclusivity broadly, as it connects to human rights and global issues.”

The group also got to showcase their own innovative programming on an international stage. As part of the annual Finnish Disability Studies Conference, Bacon gave a keynote presentation entitled, “American school and community systems that support the inclusion of people with significant disabilities in higher education.”

During the presentation, she shared the theories that have guided work in the United States and on the Montclair campus to develop post-secondary programming and the research-backed examples that have been implemented in the University’s Increasing Access to College (IAC) project.

The IAC is an inclusive post-secondary program at Montclair that partners with New Jersey school districts, to provide the opportunity for college-aged students with intellectual disability labels enrolled in a transition program, to participate in higher education. IAC students audit college courses of their choice, participate in social opportunities and engage in campus recreational activities in a peer-supported model.

“In Finland, most people with intellectual disability labels study only in vocational schools, so scholars in Finland are interested in emulating the IAC model, which provides inclusive and peer-supported opportunities for this underserved group, to pursue academic and scholarly interests,” said Bacon. “The ‘educational for all’ model gives incentive to the Finnish framework to find new and innovative structures, to include all people in their excellent and free University settings.”

In addition to the academic program, students and faculty were part of a holistic experience. The group also got to immerse themselves in the culture of the country and tour the cities outside of the classroom. From guided walking tours, to visits to such landmarks as the Suomenlinna Fortress in Helsinki, the trip served as a true global experience with memories that will last a lifetime.

“This experience fostered shared knowledge in ways that mirrored the Finnish values of collaborative learning and social responsibility,” said Stephanie Spitz, a student in Montclair’s Master’s program in Higher Education. “This trip has transformed my understanding of teaching methods and made me critically examine frameworks of equity within education.”

“Our hope for this trip was that students were able to reflect critically on pedagogical practices and policies that enhance support for all learners, while also being able to critically examine policies and practices both in the US and abroad, that are exclusionary,” said Bacon. “Each student also completed an individual research project while on the trip, which enhances their own scholarly interests and connects to their future professional goals. We feel this trip provided a powerful opportunity for students to collaboratively develop a critical lens and learn about best-practices in the field of education, which will be applied to their work of supporting and advocating for inclusive opportunities for children with disabilities in the US.”

By Andrew Mees