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 professors Jessica Bacon and Priya Lalvani 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 through the institution’s Office of International Academic Initiatives.
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 visit local schools and 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,” says 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 had the opportunity to showcase their own innovative programming on an international stage. As part of the annual Finnish Disability Studies Conference, Bacon gave a keynote presentation titled, “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,” says 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 was able 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,” says 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 U.S. and abroad that are exclusionary,” says 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. 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 United States.”
Story by Media Relations Director Andrew Mees
Photos courtesy of Jessica Bacon
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