Minal Rosenblum bonds with friends over photography and Taylor Swift. She teaches yoga on campus to preschoolers at the Ben Samuels Children’s Center and is an artist who creates note cards featuring watercolor flowers, decoupage and marbled paper. She’s also an advocate for inclusion and people with disabilities. At the Disability Pride Parade held last May in the Township of Montclair, Rosenblum, who has Down syndrome, told the crowd, “I am disabled but I am not special. Please don’t call me that.”
Attending college is a goal for this self-described “strong woman,” and next fall she hopes to have the opportunity to earn college credits as part of the first cohort of a new Certificate in General Education Studies, which will expand the opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities on the Montclair State University campus. “It’s important to include more people in the college,” she says. “My fingers are crossed.”
Nationally, only about 2% of students with intellectual disabilities have the opportunity to attend a college or university. Programs are growing, and in New Jersey, Montclair State University, with its new certificate program, is among 10 colleges and universities in New Jersey that offer students with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to earn credits and learn inclusively in higher education settings.
Currently, Rosenblum is part of the University’s Increasing Access to College (IAC) project, a transition program for local high school students and young adults to introduce them to the college experience. Peer mentors from the teacher education program accompany the students to class and activities. “I would say 100% confidently that this program adds value to the campus,” says Megan Akdemir, a senior Mathematics major on track to earn the five-year Master of Arts in Teaching.
“Having this peer relationship with Minal has helped me, and I’m sure her also, develop a friendship where we realize that there’s so many things that make us different, but there are a lot of things that we really enjoy and have shared similarities,” Akdemir says.
The work of building an inclusive campus began seven years ago with professors Jessica Bacon and Susan Baglieri, faculty members in the Department of Teaching and Learning, teaming as project coordinators of the IAC project. A $250,000 grant in 2021 from the Lacey Family Inclusive Education Fund led to a partnership to create the new certificate program to further develop skills for self-advocacy, intellectual pursuit and employment for young adults.
“People with disabilities should have the same opportunities as everyone else to grow, learn and forge a successful path for themselves,” says Wendy Lacey, owner of Cornerstone Montclair, a business promoting community inclusion. “This certificate program will give them the chance to build their future. We have so much confidence in the professors and administrators who are bringing this program to life. It sends a big message about the value system of the University.”
Wendy and Andrew Lacey joined the families attending a launch event in October for the Certificate in General Education Studies. “When we arrived, we were delighted to see a room full of families in attendance. Families like our own, who have aspirations and dreams for our loved ones who have disabilities,” Wendy Lacey said. “It was inspiring, and honestly, we felt very emotional.”
The event included an overview of the two-year commuter program, including the academic, supportive framework, and recreational components for students aged 18-25. Program curriculum includes courses in the liberal arts and sciences followed by study in a self-selected area of concentration and supported work experience related to the students’ ambitions in career or continuing education. Tracks include: Education, Service and Society; Management and Technology; Health, Wellness and Sciences; and Arts, Culture and Design.
“I think the entire campus community benefits from the inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities at Montclair,” says certificate program Director Kathryn Leonard. “The Certificate in General Education Studies offers opportunities for all Montclair students to benefit from interdependence, engage with diverse perspectives and lived experiences, and develop a meaningful understanding of disability justice.”
“Being inclusive is something that should absolutely be everywhere, but unfortunately, is not,” says Christine Tanko, a senior Music Education major on the five-year track to also earn her Master of Arts in Teaching. “We have facilities and resources on this campus that can support multiple types of learners.”
That includes the University’s ADP Center for Learning Technologies, where on a recent Friday the Advanced Inclusive Methods class met with their IAC peers to begin building website portfolios. The project will include “about” pages on their partnerships, the social and recreational activities they have participated in together, and their academic classes.
In addition to attending that class together, Tanko has a regular weekly lunch date with Rosenblum, bonding over hobbies like photography and their families. “We’ve been getting to know each other slowly,” says Tanko. “Every week we connect a little bit more.”
About 10 students will be accepted as part of the first cohort in the Certificate in General Education Studies program, and Rosenblum says she’s already completed her application.
“I made that choice on my own,” she says, noting her positive IAC experience. “I want to go to college and I want to go here especially because my mom [Teaching and Learning Professor Priya Lalvani] and dad [Norman Rosenblum, an adjunct in Art and Design] work here. I want to be the next person in our family who comes to Montclair. With all these possibilities, it’s amazing.”
The Certificate in General Education Studies program is currently recruiting students for its inaugural class, which will start in fall 2024. Applications are open. An online information session will be offered at 6:30 p.m. Monday, November 13.
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