Providing Access to Higher Education & Employment

By Ernst VanBergeijk

Originally published in EP Magazine September 2012

New York Institute of Technology Introduction to Independence (I to I) and Vocational Independence Programs: The notion of these program is that special education students sometimes need a bridge between high school and post-secondary education.

Founded in 1987, New York Institute of Technology Introduction to Independence (I to I) and Vocational Independence Programs (VIP) have helped educate a generation of teens and young adults with autism spectrum disorders and other neurologically based learning disabilities. Both programs are situated on NYIT’s 600 acre Central Islip site which contains its own residence halls, classroom buildings, and fitness facilities including a bowling alley, swimming pool, and nine-hole golf course. The programs are dedicated to educating the whole student with wrap-around support services.

The Introduction to Independence (“I to I”) Program is a seven-week bridge program designed for students’ ages 16 years old and up. The notion of this program is that special education students sometimes need a bridge between high school and post-secondary education. The students in I to I sleep in the same residence halls and attend classes in the same buildings as they would if they were to attend the Vocational Independence Program during the academic year. The program is an opportunity for the students and parents to gauge whether attending post-secondary education or vocational training away from home is a realistic goal for the student before the family makes the often large financial and emotional commitment to paying for a college semester’s worth of tuition.

Students in the Introduction to Independence Program spend approximately half of their day in a vocational placement where they learn job readiness skills (e.g. how to dress and behave in a work setting). Placements can range from food service and child care to clerical positions. Students earn a small stipend for their internships. The money from their internships is used in their classes in a practical and concrete manner. The students in their budget and banking classes will plan out their recreational activities for the week, which they must pay for out of the money they make. There are more activities than they can possibly afford on their budget- a situation many of us face in real life. The students work individually with their budget and banking advisors to prioritize activities and plan a budget accordingly. Fridays during I to I are dedicated to travel training. During class time the students learn how to use a variety of travel software programs and applications. They apply those programs and skills to planning the trip for the week. Many of those trips involve taking the Long Island Rail Road into Manhattan, where the students then learn to use the New York City mass transit system on their way to fun tourist destinations like the Museum of Natural History and the Bronx Zoo.

The Vocational Independence Program (VIP)

Approximately half of the students in the “I to I Program” matriculate into the Vocational Independence Program in the fall (provided that they are at least 18 years old). The other half return to their high schools to complete their secondary education or enroll in some other postsecondary educational experience. The I to I Program is thought to be a stress inoculator for special education students who are anxious about going away to college. During the I to I Program, students learn to live in a residence hall community, learn to navigate to and from classes in different buildings, adjust to the different expectations from college professors, and learn a whole host of independent living skills (e.g. laundry, structuring one’s own schedule, budgeting etc.). This is all done before the addition of academic demands which begin in the fall semester. For some students the adjustment to all of these new experiences can be overwhelming and the academic stressor can be the “straw that broke the camel’s back”. This is why the I to I Program does not have exams or take home assignments during the summer. The notion is to help the student transition to the role of independent college before academic demands are made upon him or her. To read more about the Introduction to Independence (I to I) Program visit: .

The Vocational Independence Program (VIP) is a U.S. Department of Education approved Comprehensive Transition and Post-secondary (CTP) Program. Currently, there are only 14 CTPs in the entire nation and NYIT has only the second approved CTP in the entire Northeastern United States. The College of New Jersey has the only other approved program in this region. (For a complete listing of U.S. Department of Education approved CTPs visit:

The Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary (CTP) designation is important for students with an Intellectual Disability (ID) (broadly defined) who are not attending CTP based upon an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). For the special education students who have already graduated from high school or are older than 21 years of age, the CTP designation means the student is allowed to apply for federal student aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), even though they are not enrolled full-time in a college degree bearing program or do not possess a high school diploma. Eligible students with an Intellectual Disability (ID) who are enrolled in an approved CTP may apply for (1) Pell Grants; (2) Federal Student Education Opportunity Grants (FSEOG); and (3) Federal Work Study Funds. Currently, students with ID are NOT eligible to apply for any federal subsidized or unsubsidized loans.

The Vocational Independence Program is a three-year certificate program that has two goals. The goals are to transition the student to the world of work and independent living, or to transition the student into a college degree bearing program full-time. Regardless of whether a student is in the vocational or pre-degree concentration, each student has a team of professionals supporting him or her and providing wrap around support and guidance.

Each student has the following team that follows the student through the 3 years of the program: (1) Academic Counselor; (2) Social Counselor; (3) Budget & Banking Advisor; (4) Job Coach; (5) Licensed Nurse Practitioner; (6) Vocational Counselor; and if necessary, (7) an Independent Living Skills Coach. This is in addition to the instructional staff, a professional transportation service, and a low ratio of resident advisors (1:7) to students in the VIP only dedicated residence hall. This system of support scaffolding is designed to maximally support the student in the beginning of the program and is gradually tapered on an individual basis as the student progresses through the three year curriculum, and gains skills and confidence.

The pre-degree concentration is for students with neurologically-based disabilities who have the prerequisite academic, executive functioning and social skills to take credit bearing classes at our Old Westbury campus. During the first semester of VIP students in this concentration take many of the same courses as the students in the vocational sequence (e.g., Health, Advanced Communications, Budget & Banking, & Vocational Exploration), however, they will also take a pre-credit bearing English or psychology course. This allows both the staff and the student to assess his or her academic, social, and executive functioning preparedness for the credit bearing course load. During the first semester, the pre-degree concentration students will tour the Old Westbury campus and meet with personnel from the counseling and wellness offices, in addition to meeting with the staff at the Disability Services Office. Part of the coursework in this sequence involves learning how to self-advocate, not only on a college campus to receive their reasonable accommodations they are entitled to under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, but also how to apply those skills to the workplace.

Both the Vocational concentration and the Pre-degree concentration students will take other courses that involve independent living skills such as a foods course where they learn to cook nutritious meals for themselves or an apartment living course where subjects such as leases, home maintenance, and fire safety & first aid are covered. Once students have identified a potential career field through their Vocational Exploration course, the students begin working in that field starting the second semester of their freshmen year.

Examples of internship placements include working in national chain retail stores, food service outlets, child care facilities, clerical positions in hospitals and corporations, elder care facilities, and hospitality internships. With each successive year in the program, the students increase their amount of time at the internship. Although both vocational and pre-degree concentration students attend internships, students in the pre-degree concentration will have less internship hours because of their enrollment in credit bearing classes. The students do have the ability to switch between the two concentrations as long as they are otherwise qualified to take credit bearing courses.

Data and research inform the curriculum and practice of the professionals working at the Vocational Independence Program. From research and experience they have learned that fitness is an issue for all Americans. In fact, one national study found that a child that had a label of autism was 42% more likely to be labeled obese as well. The faculty designed a fitness curriculum which included research from the CDC and Columbia University’s School of Public Health. They incorporated the research finding that if an individual walks 10,000 steps a day they experience a whole host of health benefits including lower rates of obesity. The faculty created a pedometer program where students and staff compete for prizes and bragging rights. For those not interested in walking or running, swimming, golfing, yoga and biking are offered AND the equivalent number of steps is calculated so that all students can participate in the contest.

A second piece of data that informs the curriculum is the fact that only about 25% of the students learn to drive a car while attending VIP. In addition, research indicates that the lack of reliable transportation is one of the most significant barriers to employment for people with disabilities. Consequently, individuals with disabilities must use mass transit. Because of its proximity to New York City, VIP students learn to use the Long Island Railroad, and the New York City mass transit system in their travel training classes which features frequent outings to the city. An optional, extra- curricular activity, open to the students and alumni of Introduction to Independence and Vocational Independence Programs, is the International Travel Training Trips. Students and alumni learn how to travel internationally. Trips have included places such as Venice & Rome, Barcelona & Madrid, Costa Rica, Ireland, Hawaii, Germany, Belgium & the Netherlands. This year’s trip is to the Beaches of Normandy, the Loire Valley, and Paris, France.

Successful Students

What drive the faculty at VIP are their students and their students’ success. Sam Matukonis (VIP ’10) readily admits he came to the program reluctantly and was angry about being there. He took a series of credit bearing classes and was considering a degree in nursing. Through his vocational placements and counseling he took a CPR course and the rest is history. Sam enrolled in an emergency medical technician (EMT) course and now works fulltime as an EMT in his home state of New Jersey. Matukonis feels, “VIP is a family away from your own family. Family provides a lot of support. It helps you grow. VIP is a second family that helps you grow.”

“The biggest positive thing I got from VIP was an incredible increase in self- confidence. When I started, I was anxious and I didn’t know about the world. I discovered talents I didn’t know I had. I learned how to manage stress and emotions. I also learned to socialize with people as well as the independent living skills,” says Laura Hansbury (VIP ’98).

Hansbury’s clerical internship and subsequent first job, eventually led to her being hired in the registrar’s office at Stony Brook University, a position she has held for over seven years. Laura has lived in her own condominium near the college for over 10 years and still keeps in touch with friends and faculty she met at the program. Laura has an active social life, which she loves.

Justin Tejera and his parents could not find a program in his home town of Miami, Florida that would assist him with his vocational goals and help him with his disability. During his first year at the Vocational Program, Justin focused upon a clerical sequence before deciding that he wanted to work in the hospitality field. During his second year at VIP, Justin’s internship was with Hilton Hotels. Justin excelled at his placement. In fact, Justin did so well that the manager at the Long Island Hilton arranged for Justine to transfer to a Hilton Hotel in Miami, Florida where he now works fulltime in a paid position. Justin successfully transitioned to the world of work and independent living after just two years in the program. “VIP helped me by learning how to be safe in the kitchen, make my own meals and live my own independent life. Of course learning to work at VIP was crucial. I now take mass transit to my job using an app on my I-phone and I have even found work part-time as a D.J. on weekends on top of my job at Hilton,” according to Tejera.

For 25 years, NYIT’s Vocational Independence Program has helped young men and women reach their full potential and lead happy, healthy, and productive lives. To find out more about the Vocational Independence Program or apply directly to VIP, please visit:
NYIT Vocational Independence Program is a U.S. Department of Education approved Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary (CTP) program.

About the Author:
Ernst VanBergeijk, Ph.D., M.S.W., is the Associate Dean and Executive Director of New York Institute of Technology Vocational independence Program.

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