ClemsonLIFE Offers Special Needs Students a Real-Life College Experience

In 2013, over two million people watched a YouTube video in which Rion Holcombe (pictured below), a young man with Down Syndrome, opened an acceptance letter to Clemson University. His unabashed joy over getting the news that he would have a real college experience at his favorite school warmed hearts all over the world. Messages of support poured in from surprising places, such as some special messages from soldiers in Afghanistan who found Rion’s video to be inspiring. Two years later, Rion graduated from the ClemsonLIFE Program, which made his dream of being a Tiger possible.

Launched in 2009, the ClemsonLIFE Program’s mission is  “to provide a coordinated course of study that includes career exploration and preparation along with self-awareness, discovery, and personal improvement through a framework of courses, job internships, and community participation.” Students take courses that focus on the development of independent living skills, while also participating in campus life as much as possible. They live in four-bedroom apartments on campus, with three LIFE students and one independent living assistant whose responsibilities extend beyond that of a typical resident assistant to helping ClemsonLIFE students excel in social integration, self-advocacy, and independent living. The initial program is two years long, and there is an advanced program for students who excel in the basic program. In addition to graduating with a certificate of postsecondary education, students in the ClemsonLIFE Program develop an employment skills portfolio that can be used to secure permanent employment after graduation.

An excellent example of a ClemsonLIFE student who made great strides in successfully integrating with other students on campus is Sydney Davis (pictured, left), who chose to take part in last year’s Miss Clemson Pageant at the Brooks Center on January 31, 2017. Davis captured the hearts of her fellow contestants, and when Brooklyn Faye Garrett was crowned Miss Clemson, she invited Davis to join her in taking her victory walk on stage. Davis studied ballroom dancing and public speaking alongside Rachel Wyatt, Miss America 2017 runner-up. 

ClemsonLIFE also benefits faculty and students at the university. LIFE classes are taught by special education faculty, and having sustained experiences with LIFE students provides excellent opportunities for these faculty to provide more insightful instruction to undergraduate teacher education students. Clemson students in other majors throughout the university are also able to work with the program as volunteers and mentors. 

Rachel Rogers, a senior special education student, enjoys volunteering with LIFE students. When asked what drew her to ClemsonLIFE, Rogers explains, “I chose to apply to be a volunteer because I enjoyed doing similar things in high school, and I thought it would be a good experience for me as a future special education teacher.” With an especially challenging schedule, Rogers feels that volunteering during the hours that she is able is the best way for her to interact with LIFE students. “Volunteering is super flexible,” she states.  “Last year, I was a tutor, so I volunteered on Fridays.” 

Rogers is glad that she is able to continue volunteering with the ClemsonLIFE Program, even during her senior year.  She will be helping with the Night to Shine event that will take place in early 2018. Sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation, the Night to Shine event is an opportunity for special needs adolescents and adults to have their moment in the spotlight. Each attendee is able to dress up and  walk the red carpet, feeling like a Hollywood Star. They even get to experience being photographed by paparazzi. The primary goal of the event is to help the special needs population celebrate accomplishments and feel the love of the community that is cheering them on to reaching their goals.

According to Rachel Rogers, getting involved with ClemsonLIFE is well worth her time. She says that her favorite part of her volunteer experience is “interacting with the students.”  She says there is nothing quite as rewarding as seeing LIFE students around campus. “I love how they are always so excited to see you and talk to you. Talking to them always brightens my day.”

For more information about the ClemsonLIFE Program, please visit their website. If you know a special needs individual between the ages of 18 and 26 who likes to learn and might want to apply, the program application is available here. There are opportunities to support ClemsonLIFE for those who do not attend Clemson University. Or click here to donate to ClemsonLIFE.

All photos courtesy of Clemson University.

Angela Rogers is a teacher, bibliophile, and freelance writer who is a lifelong resident of the Upstate.