Making the Grade, Part 1 - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Making the Grade, Part 1

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BURLINGTON, Vt. -

If it's Tuesday, it's time to Zumba at the University of Vermont.

Reporter Keith McGilvery: What do you love about Zumba class?

Sterling Peebles: You get to dance and fun music.

For UVM student Sterling Peebles the dance class is more importantly a chance to try something new.

"I love challenges, so I am up for challenges," she said.

And this challenge may just be her biggest one yet. The 29-year-old is in enrolled in the university's new Think College program. It's an effort to help students with intellectual disabilities gain tangible skills that will help them find work, socialize and become more independent.

"I am at UVM having a good time and just being myself," Sterling said.

"It's an exciting endeavor, and it's the right thing to do and it provides an experience for people with intellectual disabilities beyond high school," said Susan Ryan, the executive director of UVM's Center for Disability and Community Inclusion.

Sterling has Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes mental impairment, and is one of five students with IQs of 75 or below participating in the program that launched in September at UVM and Johnson State College. An average IQ ranges from 90-110.

"You get a chance to hang out on campus, make friends and get an experience that you never get a chance to have if you have a disability sometimes," Sterling said.

"This is a population that has often been underestimated," said Susan Ryan, who led the effort to secure more than $1 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Education to get the non-degree certificate program started.

The money came from a pot of roughly $15 million set aside by the Obama administration to create 27 new transition programs for people with intellectual disabilities across the country. They're investments Ryan and the National Down Syndrome Society say increase employment rates and income for participants.

"The certificate is individualized to meet the interests and the needs of the students and they take academic courses alongside other UVM students that are nondisabled," Ryan said.

Students are taking three to six academic courses or internships over one to two years where the expectations and assignments are the same as those for nondisabled students. Critics may question a student's ability to be successful, but Ryan says with support from resources like tutors and mentors it's a model that's working at universities across the country, including UMass-Boston.

"Years ago students who had intellectual disabilities were actually segregated, they were in institutions away from the general population," Ryan said.

This year Sterling has English 100, acting, dance class and an internship on her schedule.

Reporter Keith McGilvery: What's the hardest part do you think?

Sterling Peebles: Just trying to manage it all.

Sterling always wanted to go to college and her mom, Giovanna, was not about to slow her down, but she knew it would be tough.

"Parents are naturally, part of them says oh she'll be absolutely successful and the other part of a parent says we pray she's successful, we hope she is successful," Giovanna said.

For mom, sending Sterling alone from Montpelier to Burlington on the bus was the hardest part.

"We are all bus riders and here is Sterling by herself getting on this bus and I totally burst into tears because in the great tradition of independent people you get on a bus and you go on a great adventure," Giovanna Peebles said.

The mother of four has watched her other kids crisscross the world by bus, and Sterling's 45-minute adventure made her just as proud.

"I said to Sterls, this may not be central Botswana but this is an incredible adventure that you are getting on this bus all by yourself to go to UVM. So I immediately emailed the family, Sterling got on the bus by herself," Giovanna said.

Sterling got the email on her iPhone.

"I felt comfortable and I was having fun," she said.

The ride is now part of her daily routine.

Keith McGilvery: What do you think you're most proud of?

Sterling Peebles: Taking the bus alone. It is accomplishing something that I've never done before.

So, too, is just being at UVM, where in just a few months Sterling's made a great group of friends and she's not shying away from teaching new ones what she does best.

"They know the campus and they're fun to hang out with," she said.

At the same time she's hoping her actions on campus will satisfy any critics.

Keith McGilvery: What do you say to people who think you might not be able to cut it?

Sterling Peebles: That's tough! I can do it if you can.

Click here for more on the Think College program.

Related Story:

Making the Grade, Part 2

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