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Going Above and Beyond
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Going Above and Beyond

When Marcie Estepp was looking for a full-time internship at a small liberal arts college, the graduate student based her search on the institutions’ mission statements. Estepp, who pursues a Master of College Student Development at Appalachian State University, wanted to join a program that supported the holistic education of its students. After contacting roughly 20 schools, Estepp found that no mission was more convincing than that of Notre Dame College’s Academic Support Center. Together with graduate assistant Shane Duncan, she now works as a career coach in the Center’s cutting-edge career development program for students with learning differences – the first of its kind in the U.S.

“I think you can tell a great deal about a college simply from its mission statement,” Estepp says. “The Academic Support Center strives to educate students with learning differences for personal, professional and global responsibility by providing accommodations that go above and beyond those required by law.”

This dedication to serve an often underserviced population is evident in the Center’s newest initiative. No other college in the United States has a career service component within their disabilities services, says the Director of the Academic Support Center (ASC), Gretchen Walsh. Conceptualized by Walsh, the initiative provides the Center’s 65 enrolled students with extensive job preparation. In co-operation with the College’s Center for Career Services, it aims to put the students on a career path and get them job ready. The program is called “Career Development: Transitioning Students into the World of Work” and is funded by a $6,500 grant from the Learning Disabilities Foundation of America.

Gretchen WalshAs the first group of five ASC students graduated this May, the project is a necessary next step in the development of the Center, says Walsh, who started the ASC in 2005. “Our students are succeeding in the classroom. Now they are getting ready for the next step,” Walsh added. “They are going to need certain types of internships, more prep in interviewing skills and writing their resumes. We want to work on this with them on a continuous basis.”

Walsh used part of the funding to put together a two-person team with very different backgrounds. While Estepp has worked with various student programs, including students with learning differences, since she was 19, Duncan brings his business expertise to the ASC. Currently enrolled in Notre Dame’s graduate program for education, Duncan has managed various restaurants and entertainment facilities. “Shane has experience as a manager hiring and firing people, and interviewing them,” Walsh says. “I knew that was an area he would be good at with the students.”

Together the career coaches hold workshops about managing time, securing references and writing resumes and cover letters, and show newly purchased career training DVDs.  In individual meetings with the students, Estepp and Duncan outline career steps according to the student’s academic progress. “We really are focused on the students becoming advocates for themselves,” says Duncan.  “As needs come up we find ways to help them solve those needs and be as successful as we know they can be.”

This career preparation begins during freshman year when the coaches provide the students with a 4-year career development plan that helps track their progress. It lists a variety of tasks the students have to accomplish including setting academic goals (freshmen), solidifying a major (sophomores), securing an internship (juniors) and finalizing career plans or graduate school placement (seniors). In the spirit of the College’s culture of assessment, the students’ accomplishments are tracked after they graduate.

“We want to make sure our students are aware of what is required of them,” Estepp says. “We give them the tools and try to find the right fit for them.”

Duncan stresses that these plans are flexible.  “All these documents are written on paper. We don’t carve them in stone because your personal views, desires and the economy will change.” He says a major part of his job is convincing students they “need to work at least as hard if not harder” than others to be successful. Using a fishing analogy, he explains, “We show them the equipment they need and demonstrate how to do this. But eventually they have to get in the boat.”

Two students that have jumped on that boat are sophomores Matt Schickler and Lee Daniels. Schickler, a communication major from Bainbridge, Ohio, pursues a career in journalism, sports information or public relations. He has worked with Duncan on prepping his resume and finding a summer internship. “Shane is a great help,” Schickler says. “It’s very tough to get your name out and he is doing his best to have me succeed in the real world. The coaches provide us with so much material and reference.”

With the help of Estepp, Daniels has already secured an internship at the Kelvin Smith Library at Case Western Reserve University. In their weekly meetings Estepp brought the internship to Daniels’ attention, helped him complete the paperwork and set up goals. “Marcie is pleasant to work and easy to communicate with,” Daniels, a history major from Valley View, Ohio, says. “With her help I hope to get better contacts and develop my interviewing skills.”

But the career coaches view their tasks as more than helping students find a job when they graduate. “We want to educate healthy, active citizens who are successful in life,” Duncan says. “There really aren’t too many callings that are more rewarding.”

On March 3, Walsh presented a workshop called “Paths to Success” at the International Dyslexia Symposium in Cleveland and touched briefly upon the career initiative and its successes so far. She plans to share the project’s outcomes and evaluations at the annual conference of the Association on Higher Education and Disability in July 2010. In addition, she will publish her findings in Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal, the official publication of the Learning Disabilities Association of America. She is sure the project will be a success and her research valuable to a larger audience.

Walsh has already seen many successes in her academic work with the students. The average grade point average at the ASC is 2.65; and while students with learning differences traditionally have a college dropout rate of 80 percent, the Center retained 95 percent of its students last semester.

“There are lots of high five moments,” Walsh says. “Anybody who works in the ASC starts to feel the passion and excitement. It’s very rewarding.” Walsh says the career initiative reinforces these academic successes. She hopes funding for the project will continue beyond the project’s inaugural year.

If the program grows, Walsh will have to hire full-time career coaches. Estepp, who graduated with her master’s in May, would like to be one of them. “I have met this Notre Dame family and love every minute of being here,” Estepp says. “Working at the ASC has truly shown me what heart and dedication can do for the students.”

Christian Taske ’07 is the editor and writer at Notre Dame College.