Among the more than 300 students at the University of Delaware College of Education and Human Development's convocation ceremony Friday were nine young men and women who never imagined they would wear a cap and gown or even attend college.

They were the first group ever to complete the Career and Life Studies Certificate Program, a new two-year curriculum at UD tailored specifically for people with intellectual disabilities such as autism, Asperger's and other conditions that make learning seem like an insurmountable challenge.

The nine (actually 10 – one was absent with an injury) earned the right to wear their caps and gowns by completing two years of study in such areas as communication, problem-solving, life studies, one-on-one coaching, campus exploration and introduction to employment.

“It's a big transition,” said Brian Freedman, program director who also teaches a class called “Campus Exploration.” “It's about moving into an adult world where things are different.”

Freedman said that the second year of the program includes a strong vocational component, with many students getting their first work experience as UD employees in public safety, facilities and grounds, and food services.

Geoffrey Steggel said he feels like he has grown as a person thanks to the program.

He said he works for Aramark in the Kent Dining Hall washing dishes and that he plans to search for a job.

“I practice washing dishes at home, too, but I don't get paid there,” he said.

Oliver Dynes pursued his course of study while holding down a job as a cart pusher at Wal-Mart.

He said Friday that his horizons have expanded in the last two years because of the UD program.

“I learned a lot of stuff I never knew before,” he said.

He added that he was nervous at Friday’s ceremony.

“I never graduated college before,” he said.

Oliver's father, Russell Dynes, a retired state employee, said the program has helped teach his son “how to live like a grownup in the 21st century.”

“This was a good opportunity locally, and we've been encouraging him to explore,” he said. “We're proud of him, and we're proud of his classmates.”

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