Academy for Inclusive Learning and Social Growth

Making dreams a reality

Ava Cutler

KENNESAW, Ga. (May 20, 2016) — Watching her big sister head off to college inspired Ava Cutler to do the same thing, but without Kennesaw State University’s Academy for Inclusive Learning and Social Growth, Cutler’s dream could have remained an unfulfilled wish.

“I just wanted to have a college experience like my sister,” the 2016 Academy grad said. “I love living in campus housing and just being on my own.”

Academy for Inclusive Learning and Social Growth hosts state legislators, scholarships needed

KENNESAW, Ga. (Nov. 3) – Affording college can be a struggle for many students and their families. For students in Kennesaw State University’s Academy for Inclusive Learning and Social Growth those financial challenges can sometimes be the barrier between the students and their recently gained access to higher education.

Those challenges, and what some families have had to do to rise above them, was the focus of a legislative “listening session” on “Post-Secondary Education and Employment Options for Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities,” held on campus Oct. 26. Academy staff, advocates for Academy students and parents took the opportunity to lobby state legislators for scholarship money.

“Twenty-one out of our 28 students this fall applied for assistance,”  Katherine Rigsby told state Reps. Katie Dempsey (R-Rome) and Bubber Epps (R-Dry Branch). “Those students only had access to 12 partial scholarships, and six students had to withdraw because they couldn’t afford it.”

Dempsey and Epps sit on the Georgia House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee on human resources.

“What a privilege it is for this study committee to listen to strong advocates for and parents of these students,” said Dempsey, who chairs the five-member committee. “We want to help make life more meaningful for these students, and help each and every person who can work and make our state better.”

The Academy, which began with three students in 2009, offers a unique certificate program designed to provide students with intellectual and developmental disabilities a college experience. Part of the WellStar College of Health and Human Services, Academy students audit college level courses, in addition to taking classes focused on social and life skills in a two-year certificate program. There is also an advanced certificate program available focused on leadership and the students’ “areas of “passion.”

“Our Academy students access all the resources available on campus, including housing, the rec center, and Owl-O-Ween,” said Karla Wade, Academy Mechanics. “The Academy students are seamlessly woven into the tapestry of campus.”

That integration, however, comes at an even higher price for Academy students, who are provided with peer mentors and additional support services. Academy students are not eligible for Pell grants or the HOPE scholarship, vehicles many traditional students use to help finance their education.

“This program is awesome,” parent Patricia Roper told the legislators. “It has given our students with special needs opportunities of a lifetime.”

Roper went on to say it was “just short of a miracle” she was able to provide her daughter, Brielyn, with the opportunity.

“Her aspiration was to attend college like her brothers,” Roper, a two-time cancer survivor said. “When I found out about the Academy, I had no job, I was living with someone else. I sold my jewelry, my car and had a garage sale for the rest.”

According to Roper, Brielyn blossomed her first semester on campus.

“My other children had access to Pell grants and scholarships,” she said. “These students have potential; they can do a lot of things. We have to find a way to find some money for these students.”

Wendy Allen also sold her house so her daughter could attend the Academy.

“The Academy is providing our students a future instead of making them always need the system,” she said. “They do have something to give back.”

-- By Jennifer Hafer

"Leader of the Pack"

Angie Gomez and her daughter Natalie

KENNESAW, Ga. (Oct. 8, 2015) — The Academy for Inclusive Learning and Social Growth at Kennesaw State University recently received funding that will allow its students the opportunity to apply for scholarships to cover the costs of tuition, housing, books, meal plans and program fees.

Kennesaw State students make connections for inclusive education abroad


Students' journey to United Arab Emirates yields greater independence, partnerships

KENNESAW, Ga. (June 8, 2015) — Kennesaw State University’s Academy for Inclusive Learning and Social Growth (AILSG) promises its students a fully inclusive two-year college experience for those with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

Nobody said anything about camel rides.

“I have had the best time of my life!,” Brielyn Roper-Hubbert, an AILSG student, said of her camel ride. “I had so much fun and learned so much!”

That camel experience represents part of the remarkable growth since the program’s 2009 inception. It has grown from a three-student cohort that first year to 36 students this fall, with the addition of an advanced 2-year certificate in Leadership and Career Development. . And another sign of that growth was taking the program international when the AILSG teamed with WellStar College of Health and Human Services’ Department of Exercise Science and Sport Management (ESSM) on a trip to the United Arab Emirates: the university’s first inclusive education abroad program.

The emphasis was on inclusion and to promote the independence for the AILSG students. So for 10 days, Kennesaw State students with and without intellectual and developmental differences roomed, worked, traveled, learned together and created a system of mutual support while experiencing the diversity and culture of the UAE – camel rides for Kennesaw State students included – making stops in Sharjah, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi.

Dr. Ibrahim Elsawy, Executive Director of the AILSG specifically chose the UAE because of its progressive work with students with disabilities, the accessibility of the country as a whole, and the unique melding of history, culture, and acceptance. He added that the country’s disabilities instruction is good for all the students and they will have partners to work with them in Sharjah for ongoing projects.

“It was beyond our expectations,” said Dr, Elsawy, who also organized the first Arab-American Dialogue on Disability, held at KSU in 2009, with 14 Arab World countries in attendance. When Dr. Elsawy began to plan the trip, he knew to enlist the assistance of Dr. Jimmy Calloway, an internationally respected professor, who has worked with Dr. Elsawy on several other projects of worldwide scope.

 “The way the students worked together was better than we’d imagined,” said Dr. Calloway, KSU Professor of sport management. “You could not tell who was from the Academy and who was in Sport Management. They represented the Academy and Sport Management very well.

“The whole purpose of the trip was inclusion. We did not want to separate Academy students from sport management students. That is what made this trip unique. From airplane seating assignments to room assignments, sport management students shared rooms, seating assignments and events with each other.

“Out of 200 Academy like programs across the country only one other program that we know of has ever sent academy students abroad. Our program is the only one that was formally invited and received by a foreign NGO.”

Dr. Elsawy credits the success of the trip, in part, to the deft guidance of Julia Conger, LMSW, Social & Academic Advisor, who accompanied the group. Academy students made travel test runs last year going to New York and Washington, DC. They also attended meetings with the ESSM students to learn the dos and don’ts of traveling to the UAE.

The students — three from AILSG and five from ESSM — shared their experiences with members of the royal family, including His Highness Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad bin Sultan Al Qasimi,, crown prince and deputy ruler of Sharjah, and Her Highness Sheikha Jameela Al Qasimi, who provided invaluable guidance for the trip.

“It was the most incredible experience I ever had,” said Dr. Calloway, who also was vice president of the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta. “I traveled around the world because of the 1996 Games, and there was nothing close to the experience I had there (in the UAE). From how we were treated by the royal family to how we were treated by their government was terrific.

“And the inclusive experience was phenomenal. I’ve been involved in travel abroad experiences for years. And spending 10 days with the same people in three places, and the schedule we kept, and not have one blow up? I’ve never seen that.”

The group visited several nongovernmental organizations that support individuals with disabilities, as well as the Sharjah Sport Council, a governmental organization that supports sport and inclusion in the Sharjah community. Students spent time learning about the supportive organizations, like the Sharjah City for Humanitarian Services, and interacting with local residents with and without disabilities. They attended classes and made presentations at Sharjah University.

One of the more memorable moments for Charlie Miller, an AILSG student from Gainesville, Ga., came when he played with the children at the Al Thiqah Club for the Handicapped.

“We were all playing and having a blast,” said Miller, who accompanied AILSG classmates Roper-Hubbert and Janet Keller on the trip. “One of the kids gave me a bracelet and I knew then, this is where I should be.”

While with the crown prince, the group discussed issues of education, culture and Islam. And as the students would find out during the trip, Islam, though the prevailing faith, was not the only one. They also visited a church on Easter Sunday and discovered there are Catholic, Russian Orthodox and Coptic faiths as well.

“It was a surprise to the students because they thought the Middle East was only Muslim and that there were no Christians,” Elsawy said. “We found Christians everywhere and talked with a minister about the level of religious freedom. It was a very important education for them. And most of the students said that it changed the stereotype they had. And this was a change for both sides.”

That was just part of their engagement with local residents and leaders as the students were immersed in the rich and diverse culture of the Emirates. Additionally, faculty discussed the possibilities of collaborating with the University of Sharjah in the areas of sport management and criminal justice, building the foundation to ongoing cooperation and mutual benefit.  Dr. Elsawy is also actively developing opportunities for international student internships with interested partners.

The trip had a profound impact on Emilee Manning, a Sports Management major. Being in the UAE with Kennesaw State’s Academy students helped her establish her life goals.

“It broadened my cultural mindset as well as secured my passion to work with those who have different abilities,” Manning said. “My goal is to assist professional athletes to found nonprofits for things they are passionate about, particularly giving back to those who deserve it most, those with different abilities.”

Dr. Elsawy recognizes the extraordinary support from the Office of Study Abroad, Dr. Monica Nandan, interim Dean of the WellStar College of Health and Human Services, as well as from Provost Ken Harmon and President Daniel Papp.

This trip has been a dream for Dr. Elsawy ever since he took on the role of Executive Director for the Academy, in December of 2012.

“Organizations in the Emirates are hoping to work with us on different things,”Elsawy said. “The people got to see that the American students were serious, they are willing to understand (different cultures). They were good ambassadors for the U.S. and KSU. It was a very good trip.”


— by Tim Turner

Kennesaw State's Academy for Inclusive Learning students on historic Middle East trip


KENNESAW, Ga. (April 6, 2015) –This year, Charlie Miller’s spring break is taking him far from his comfort zone and in the direction of greater independence.

Miller, Brielyn Roper-Hubbert and Janet Keller – all students in Kennesaw State University’s Academy for Inclusive Learning and Social Growth – embarked Friday on a 10-day visit to the United Arab Emirates. They will be part of a Kennesaw State contingent — five Exercise Science and Sports Management students and three staff members — who will be making the 14-hour flight to Dubai.

The trip, considered the first of its kind where students with disabilities are full participants, will include stops in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah while in the Middle East.

“It’s groundbreaking, really,” said Miller, a sophomore from Gainesville, Ga. “It’s the first trip of its kind for an Inclusive Academy. It’s really the start of something new and really something amazing.

“It’s going to be interesting to be so far away from our secure location into somewhere new. So we have to get more independent. And it’s just really cool how we get to do it.”

The Academy is a program that offers a fully inclusive college experience to students with intellectual or developmental disabilities that do not meet the university requirements for admission as degree-seeking students. It includes enrollment as non-degree seeking audit students in typical university courses alongside degree-seeking students.

Kennesaw State has the first program in Georgia to make this kind of trip with its students.

“This is inclusive,” said Dr. Ibrahim Elsawy, the Academy’s executive director, “We are going to the Middle East, which is a totally different culture.

“It’s a 14-hour trip, which is difficult for anyone. International travel is difficult. And we will be prepared.”

In efforts to acclimate to what they would experience, the students took trips to New York and Washington. Last March on their trip to D.C., they visited advocacy agencies to prepare documentation for the trip and visit Congress. In November, in New York, they toured the United Nations.The trips afforded them the chance to train the students about traveling through airports, how to handle themselves on planes and other travel dos and don’ts.

Granted, those trips can’t approximate the journey the students are about to take, but they do help.

“I’ve been working really hard in school,” Roper-Hubbert said. “This is a new experience and I don’t want to get any kind of trouble over there where I don’t come back.”

“I just hate taking off my shoes,” Keller said, of the airport security procedures. “But I’m excited and we’ve been learning how to say thank you and please. It is going to be different.”

As part of the trip, the students will work as volunteers as part of a community service project, attend a class at Sharjah University and visit with non-governmental organizations. Along with other Kennesaw State students, they will also visit the Sharjah Sports Council and attend athletic events.

Elsawy chose the UAE because of its progressive work with students with disabilities. He added that the country’s disabilities instruction is good for the students, and they will have partners to work with the students while in Sharjah.

“This trip is for us to exchange information,” Elsawy said. “We are going to learn from them and to tell them about our experience — especially as an inclusive university. So it’s win-win. We are working with them as equals. Our students are not going there as tourists. They are going on a mission, and they are going as ambassadors of the United States.

“And actually, this is more effective than official politicians that represent the United States. Because people-to-people is more effective than anything else in this area. This is very important to them to feel proud and to be part of the community and part of the country. They are becoming Global Citizens.”


– by Tim Turner

Academy for Inclusive Learning and Social Growth is expanding

Academy students with community partners

Program is piloting a third year, planning study abroad trip

KENNESAW, Ga. (April 22, 2014) - The Academy for Inclusive Learning and Social Growth at Kennesaw State University kicked off the new school year with a reception honoring campus and community partners, as well as some big news – a “junior year” for students.

“In social work, when we work with people with different abilities, it’s important to partner with different organizations in the community because each brings different  things to the table that allow people with different abilities to spread their wings and fly,” interim WellStar College of Health and Human Services Dean Monica Nandan said. “All of these partnerships help nurture the Academy to its fullest potential.”

Representatives with the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health, the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency, Kennesaw State’s Office of Legal Affairs and the Office of the Vice President for Research were all on hand. Several Academy students and alumni were also at the reception.

“There are three other universities coming on board (with academies),” said Eric Jacobson, executive director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities. “This is a dream that a lot of people have that is now coming true, and y’all were the leaders in that.”

Launched in 2009, the Academy offers a unique two-year certificate program designed to provide students with intellectual and developmental disabilities a college experience through the auditing of college-level courses, as well as courses designed to help them gain social, work and living skills, so they can find jobs they want and become more independent. It is one of 250 such programs nationwide, and the only one of its kind in Georgia.

“You learn about life on campus; you don’t learn about life at home,” said Gregory Schmieg, executive director of the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency. “We have one vision: that every Georgian live and work independently as they choose.”

Two new developments at the Academy were also announced during the reception: the Academy launched a pilot third-year program beginning this year; and the Academy has received a grant to travel with students overseas next year.

--By Jennifer Hafer

Georgia's lieutenant governor lauds graduates

2014 Inclusive Education Grad dc 103.jpg

KENNESAW, Ga. (May 15, 2014)Academy for Inclusive Learning and Social Growth first-year student Charlie Miller bristles at the suggestion of one day becoming a politician. Instead, Miller says he wants to be a public servant who builds consensus among stakeholders.

“I want to help the people around me,” Miller said. “I’m tired of all the partisan politics; I want to hear each side of an issue and work to build agreements around decisions.”

Academy for Inclusive Learning and Social Growth receives $9,000 grant

Academy for Inclusive Learning and Social Growth 2012 graduates

Students in the Academy for Inclusive Learning and Social Growth at Kennesaw State University will soon have a computer lab of their own, thanks to a donation from the Holly Lane Foundation.

“This grant is very important because it supports the technology needs of our students, and technology is a very important part of today’s educational environment,” said Academy Executive Director Ibrahim Elsawy.

The $9,000 grant will fund desktop computers for a new computer lab for the Academy’s 18 students. Part of the WellStar College of Health and Human Services, the Academy offers a unique two-year certificate program designed to provide students with intellectual disabilities a college experience through the auditing of college-level courses, as well as courses designed to help them gain social, work and living skills so they can find jobs they want and become more independent.

“The new lab will give our students a dedicated space where they can work with their mentors,” Elsawy said. “This is very good news for the students.”

To date, the Academy has received more than $150,000 in grant funding this year, including $50,000 from the Georgia Legislature. The Academy is one of 250 programs nationwide, and the only one of its kind in Georgia.

The Holly Lane Foundation is a private foundation in Atlanta that distributes funds to nonprofits whose focus is to serve and enhance the lives of individuals or groups with developmental disabilities.

“We are very grateful for this grant,” Elsawy commented, “and we look forward to future opportunities to cooperate with the Holly Lane Foundation.”

--Jennifer Hafer


Kennesaw State’s Academy for Inclusive Learning & Social growth receives legislative funding

Academy for Inclusive Learning and Social Growth 2012 graduates

Program offers a college experience to intellectually and developmentally disabled students

KENNESAW, Ga. (April 18, 2013) — A Kennesaw State University program that enables students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to experience college life has received $50,000 in the FY 2014 Georgia General Assembly budget.

This is the first legislative appropriation received by the Academy for Inclusive Learning & Social Growth, which is housed in the University’s WellStar College of Health and Human Services.

When the final gavel fell on the 152ndlegislative session March 29, legislators had approved $100,000 in funding in support of inclusive post-secondary education for students with developmental disabilities, including $50,000 for Kennesaw State’s Academy and an additional $50,000 that will be used for the development of an inclusive post-secondary educational program at another USG institution.

“We are honored and grateful to receive this funding in support of inclusive post-secondary education,” said President Daniel S. Papp. “Diversity is an important part of Kennesaw State’s mission, and the Academy is a reflection of that. This support is an affirmation of the hard work and dedication of the Academy’s students and staff over the last four years.”

The Academy offers  a unique two-year certificate program designed to provide students with intellectual and developmental disabilities a college experience through the auditing of college-level courses, as well as courses designed to help them gain social, work and living skills so they can find jobs they want and become more independent.

“By having this college experience, students who may have been very shy, or a little awkward in social situations before, are suddenly integrated into the student body, and it changes their whole outlook on what they think their abilities are,” said WellStar College of Health and Human Services Dean Richard Sowell. “We are proud to be the standard bearers for inclusive post-secondary education in Georgia.”

Academy administrators are working on creating a replication manual because they are being called upon locally, nationally, and internationally, to provide consulting to other institutions interested in creating similar programs. According to Academy Director Ibrahim El Sawy, the Academy has received inquiries from as far away as the Middle East for such assistance.

 "We are ready to work with any who wants to join us in this important initiative," he said. 

The Academy is one of 250 programs nationwide, and the only one of its kind in Georgia. At a capitol rally this winter supporting state funding for more programs like the Academy, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal praised Kennesaw State as a pioneer.

"(Kennesaw State University is) a forerunner of this in our higher educational institutions, and I believe it is a program that we can replicate throughout our entire university system," Deal said.

What makes Kennesaw State’s program standout from others across the country, however, is the extent of inclusivity. Not only do Academy students live on campus, there is an alumni association, a parents’ group and scholarship opportunities.

Diane Barker commutes 250 miles a day to bring her son, Casey, to Kennesaw State.

“If you put my son next to another 22-year-old at Kennesaw who is a typical student, the outside may look different, but he has every goal, vision and dream that the typical student has,” Barker said. “The biggest benefit of the program is providing him with a typical experience, where he is part of everybody else on the KSU campus. He’s not that young man with Down Syndrome.”

Where once society pigeon-holed persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities into jobs as grocery store clerks and fast food workers, Academy students dream of jobs working with children and professional athletes.

“Even though I have a disability, I can do normal things that regular college students can in their lifetimes,” said Academy student Faith Roman, who is studying early childhood education and hopes one day to work at a daycare. “I am living in the dorms and I love getting to be with new friends. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

--By Jennifer Hafer




Kennesaw State University is the third-largest university in Georgia, offering 80 graduate and undergraduate degrees, including doctorates in education, business and nursing, and a new Ph.D. in international conflict management. A member of the University System of Georgia, Kennesaw State is a comprehensive, residential institution with a growing population of 24,600 students from more than 130 countries.

Growing ranks

Academy for Inclusive Learning and Social Growth 2012 graduates

In a commencement season full of firsts, friends, family and supporters of Kennesaw State University’s Academy for Inclusive Learning and Social Growth celebrated a second – the graduation of its second cohort of students with intellectual disabilities.

“I can’t tell you how proud we are of our six fabulous graduates,” academy director Harry Stern said. “They have exceeded everyone’s expectations, including their own.”

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