Like many high school graduates, Jennifer Gans, of Glen Ellyn, wanted to go to college. But developmental delays put her in a population of students that few colleges serve: those with "intellectual disabilities."
Now Gans, 25, is a proud graduate of Elmhurst College's four-year Elmhurst Learning and Success Academy and has the certificate to prove it.
ELSA, which started in 2005, is one of a small but growing number of college programs in the Midwest for students with intellectual disabilities. The students' diagnoses include Down syndrome, autism, developmental delays, multiple learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder.
"Because of ELSA, I got the whole college experience," said Gans. "I lived with a friend in a condo near campus and walked to classes and to my favorite place in downtown Elmhurst for a smoothie."
Gans' studies included academics plus courses that improved her time-management and independent-living skills. Through ELSA internships, Gans explored career goals.
"I learned that working with animals is what makes me happy," said Gans.
Now, Gans juggles part-time jobs at a pet store and a clothing store while she completes the veterinary assistant program at the College of DuPage.
"Long term, I'd like to work for a large-animal vet," said Gans, who boards a horse and likes all things equine.
ELSA has graduated 19 students, and 24 are currently enrolled. Other ELSA graduates have landed jobs in fields such as recreation and photography, said LuEllen Doty, Elmhurst's director of special education.
The programs for students with intellectual disabilities vary from college to college.
In the ELSA program, educational coaches help students set goals and learn study skills. Mandatory community service gets them involved with local nonprofits. And the program is inclusive, Doty said.
"The ELSA students usually live at home but are with the other students all day," she said.
National Louis University's Skokie campus offers a two-year certificate program called PACE.
"Students live in the residence halls and participate with the others, academically and socially," said Assistant Director Barb Kite.
PACE grads work in fields including elder care and transportation.
"I had three internships," reported Zach Farber, 22, a recent PACE grad who lives in Evanston with a roommate. "I worked at a day care center, in food service at a high school — where I was the grilled-cheese chef — and in a hospital's physical therapy department. I decided food service is for me, so I'm looking for a job in that field now."
Farber said he also learned soft skills such as "making sure your potential employers get positive feedback from your previous employers."
PACE was a boost to his social life, added Farber, who keeps up with peers on Facebook.
"We went out to restaurants and plays," he said. "I joined the drama club. I will continue acting as a hobby."
The University of Iowa's REACH program includes 41 students — about 20 percent of whom are from the Chicago area. The two-year certificate program includes academics plus life-skills courses. Students live in the dorms, are matched with mentors and serve internships.
"Two-thirds of our grads get jobs or additional education," said REACH Director Jo Hendrickson. "For some of them, full-time employment is too much, so part-time employment is the goal. Of course, they're dealing with the same problem as other students; there are fewer jobs out there now."
REACH grads' jobs include posts in agriculture, office work and medicine.
Iowa has a generous scholarship fund, added Hendrickson.
"Many of these parents don't have college money because they've had had so many medical and tutoring expenses," she said. "And they didn't expect these kids to be able to go to college."
The University of Wisconsin at Whitewater does not have a separate program per se but does have services in place to help its approximately 80 students who are on the autistic spectrum and about 20 with low IQs who graduated from high school with modified curricula.
"They must be admitted to the university or transfer here," explained Elizabeth Watson, director of the Center for Students With Disabilities. "It may take them five or six years, but they can graduate. Some earn an associate's instead of a bachelor's degree."
Watson's staff helps students cope by, for example, taking a class on a pass-fail basis. A four-week, live-in summer orientation helps students learn "how to find their classes, live in the dorm and order a pizza," said Watson.
"Name the field, from computer science to social work, and we have grads in that field," said Watson.
DePaul University's PLuS program is similar. Students must be admitted to the university as undergrads or graduate students. But the PLuS staff works with them to make adjustments.
"A student may need to take a test in our office because he's easily distracted, for example," said Judith Kolar, PluS director. "If reading is difficult, he can get his textbook on audio. We lend them (digital pens) for note taking."
A few Illinois community colleges offer programs for these students, too.
Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey has credit and noncredit programs for students with intellectual disabilities. Its graduates get jobs in fields including education and Web design or go on to collect associate's or bachelor's degrees.
"The goal is to get marketable skills," said Director Kathy Harberer. "They have high expectations for themselves and work hard."
Parents of students with intellectual disabilities are used to advocating for their kids. But when it comes to finding a college, they really have their work cut out for them, said Karen Stopka, of St. Charles, whose daughter, Kelly, 22, graduated from the REACH program, then got a job as a preschool teacher's aide.
"There are more options on the East Coast," Karen Stopka said. "Here, we don't have many choices. There's no one guide to go to. Part of the reason is the kids have different needs. You can't lump them all together in one program."
Stopka suggests networking with other parents and attending college fairs.
"There is a huge, huge need for more colleges that serve this population," said Harberer.
But the directors see things heading in the right direction.
"It took us 40 years," said Watson. "But we've gone from the point where colleges were accessible to (students with) wheelchairs to being accessible to students with intellectual disabilities."