ELSA program provides path to college for challenged students

Road to the Future

08/23/2010  |  RITA COLORITO
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For most college students, the hardest part of getting to class in the morning is waking up. For Mike Mackowiak, a student in the graduate program of the Elmhurst Life Skills Academy at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois, the challenges of getting to college couldn’t be overcome with a shot of espresso. Considered intellectually and socially challenged with autism spectrum disorder, Mackowiak had to master not only the Chicago subway system but also his fears of going to college and fitting in.

Begun in 2005, ELSA, as it is known, provides a path to college for students like Mackowiak, that otherwise would be closed to them. The first program of its kind in Illinois, with three such programs currently in the works there, about 250 similar programs exist throughout the United States. These programs provide learning disabled students who can function at least at the 3rd grade level with the opportunity to pursue a higher education on a college campus and learn the life skills necessary to chart their own future.

Many learning challenged students hit educational roadblocks after high school. Mackowiak only qualified for 000 level classes at the jr. college and transition programs didn’t meet his needs. “Prior to ELSA, we worried that Mike would not get to realize his dream of a college experience,” says his mother, Diane Mackowiak.

It’s one of the many worries parents of learning disabled students face. They also worry what will happen to their children when they can no longer care for them: Will they be able to get a job, earn a living and live on their own?

ELSA focuses not just on academics, offering in-depth coursework in reading, writing and math, but the whole student. Through various on and off-campus organizations, ELSA provides opportunities in work and volunteerism, and social and recreational activities. “The variety and intensity of support available through ELSA—from professors, Elmhurst College students and ELSA students themselves—is what sets it apart from other transitional programs,” says ELSA adjunct professor Charlie Reibsamen, who first worked as a student mentor while he was pursuing a Special Education degree at Elmhurst College.

Reibsamen now teaches ELSA Graduate Seminars which provide continued support for ELSA alumni. This year’s seminar will take alumni on the information superhighway, with them creating and contributing to a blog focused on learning challenged students.

Above all, Reibsamen says, ELSA helps students think and advocate for themselves. “What I have seen in the ELSA graduates is a belief that they can do something meaningful, and the will to make it happen,” he says.

Since ELSA opened its doors, 12 students have received their certificate of completion and more than 30 students are currently enrolled. “Because programs like ours are growing, it gives these students the chance to ‘college visit’ like a typical student would,” says ELSA director Nancy Cheeseman. “Yes, they are apprehensive and excited. However, many are looking for this experience to provide that once in a lifetime opportunity of attending college.”

ELSA’s alumni statistics rival those of their non-challenged peers: Seven ELSA alumni are currently employed and one is furthering her education at a junior college in California, her home state. Two are also continuing their volunteer work, an integral facet of the ELSA experience.

ELSA junior Jarvis Hart currently volunteers with Opportunity Knocks (OK), an organization geared toward young adults with learning disabilities. To fulfill his dreams of working in sports and media, Hart had the opportunity to do a radio interview for OK. He has also written a sports piece for The Leader, Elmhurst College’s newspaper. “The program has given me all the tools that I need to accomplish my goal while I’m in college,” says Hart, who, like Mackowiak, struggles with autism.

“ELSA changed my life,” says Alayna Ayres, of Westmont, Ill., who learned to wrangle Attention Deficit Disorder and dyslexia to stay focused on her work and goal of a college education. “It helped me realize that I can be successful no matter what life throws at me.” After receiving her ELSA certificate of completion, Ayres, who attends ELSA graduate seminars, confronted the stagnant economy head on, becoming an Avon representative to earn some money while she continues to job hunt. She hopes to eventually work as an advocate for people with learning challenges.

For those wanting to explore independent living, ELSA works with Monarch Living, a transitional housing program, to get students started in a life outside the family home. Mackowiak and Ayres went their own route, moving in with ELSA students and other roommates. Mackowiak continues to live with two friends in a condo near campus while working at a paid internship at Cossley Zoo in Wheaton, Ill., part of his lifelong dream and long term plan of working with animals.

Once Mackowiak learned self-reliance, there was no stopping him. “Up until the day Mike graduated, he became the program’s cheerleader,” recalls Cheeseman.

For the first three years of his ELSA program, Mackowiak, took two subway lines from his parents’ home in Orland Park, getting up at 5:30 a.m., just to get to his classes. Caffeine wasn’t the motivator. Mackowiak now believed in himself. “I felt like I was a real college student,” says Mackowiak, who returned to the program after graduating to mentor current ELSA students. “I wanted to show them what campus life was like and that it could be fun,” he says.

The road to a successful life might be a little more bumpy for intellectually challenged students, but thanks to programs like ELSA, it no longer contains a Dead End sign.

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