As the founder of the Makor College Experience, a program that provides individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities the opportunity to experience college life at Yeshiva University, there are two questions that I am often asked: First, what was the impetus for starting the program, and two, how do we define success?
As to the first question, the need for such a program is beyond doubt. The Jewish world has done so well with including children with disabilities in our elementary and high schools, our synagogues, our summer camps and youth groups, and everyone has benefited from the experience. Once people with Intellectual Disability reach post high-school age, however, the peers they have grown up with, attended school and camp with, suddenly disappear, going off to study in Israel, or get jobs, or go to college. In other words, they keep growing into their adult lives. For those with Intellectual Disability, it can be a very difficult time.
When I approached my bosses at Makor Disability Services with the idea of starting a college experience program, I knew that Yeshiva University would be the perfect partner. There are over 200 programs for college-age people with intellectual and development disabilities on campuses throughout the country. None, though, provide the sense of taking that next step in spiritual growth, in forming one’s Jewish identity, that is synonymous with YU. I knew that by opening YU to this population, we would be breaking down yet another barrier to normalization and inclusion that would benefit not only the program’s participants and the University itself, but the entire Jewish community.
And, when students in the Makor College Experience Program began their first day on the Wilf Campus in August of 2017—learning in the Beit Midrash, taking specially-developed classes, eating in the cafeteria with other college students, joining the vibrant extracurricular life on campus—I knew a dream had been realized.
The question of how we measure the success of that dream, however, was a bit more challenging. In the future, we hope to measure success by pointing to the jobs secured by our graduates after completing our three-year, non-degree program. As our inaugural class is still within its first year, however, we don’t yet have any graduates to point to. We could look at the enjoyment the students are having taking our classes, or their performance on assessments, or count the number of basketball games or clubs the students attended, but the truth is that college life is more than just classes and clubs. For a while, I wasn’t sure that we had a good measure of success at all.
But then, one Friday night, I saw the success of our program in action. One of our students joined my family in Teaneck for Shabbos. In shul, he approached someone around his age whom I didn’t recognize and they greeted each other like old friends. I asked the person he had approached, “How do you guys know each other? From camp? Are you from the same community?” and he replied, “No, I know him from YU.” That was the moment I realized the program must be doing something right.
I have a file on my computer labeled “Letters of Acceptance.” As my team and I go through applications for the coming year, we are often struck by applicants stating that they want to go to YU because “That’s where my friends go” or because “My whole family went to YU.” The letters in that file aren’t just letters of acceptance into a program; they are letters of acceptance. Acceptance as a member of the community. Acceptance as someone worthy of the experience of college life. Acceptance as someone who doesn’t stop growing just because he or she “aged out” of high school. Acceptance.
If you look up the word “integration” in the dictionary, you will find the definition, “To make into a whole by bringing all parts together.” When you think about it, then, when we talk about “community integration” with regard to people with ID, it is not the people with ID that are being “integrated”; rather, it is the community that is being “integrated”. It is the community that is being “made whole by bringing all parts together”. Without “integration”, it is the community itself that is incomplete. Yeshiva University is an integral part of the Jewish community. By partnering with Makor and including the students of the Makor College Experience, YU is helping to make the entire university, and community, whole.
While our plan is to have our students employed, I cannot yet say with certainty where our students are going to end up after they graduate. But I can say this: Right now, they have been accepted, and the community is more complete because of it.
Dr. Stephen Glicksman is Director of Clinical Innovation at Makor Disability Services and founder of the Makor College Experience, a partnership program of Makor and Yeshiva University. To apply to or support the Makor College Experience, please contact Dr. Glicksman at 347-390-1315 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.yu.edu/makor-college-experience.