Nick Moore loves animals, especially horses. He has been riding since he was a young boy and now owns a Dutch Warmblood named Prime Time. This past spring Moore also got to explore academically his passion for animals and for improving the environment, thanks to a special mentoring program offered through Mason’s Learning into Future Environments (LIFE) program.
Moore is in his third year of studies in the Mason LIFE program, which for more than a decade has provided an inclusive university experience to young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“I like things involving animals mostly,” says Moore. So in addition to the academic classes he was taking through Mason LIFE, Moore enrolled in a special topics course on conservation biology in fall 2012 that catered to his love of animals, and an environmental science class in spring 2013 that helped broaden his knowledge of environmental issues.
But to successfully navigate the class—the same one offered to all Mason students—he needed some help. That’s where Mason LIFE’s innovative mentorship program and biology major Yasemin Mishlawi came in.
Mishlawi, a sophomore, was paired with Moore to help guide him through the course. Several days each week the two walked together to class, sat through lectures, and participated in lab and fieldwork. Mishlawi took notes, helped Moore absorb the material, assisted him with homework, and studied with him.
“In the lab we did some experiments,” Moore says. “We would go out in the woods. It gave me good experience.”
He credits Mishlawi’s assistance with his ability to keep up with the course requirements. “She helps me with packets and answering questions,” he says. “She gives me the notes, and I look them over. She’s helped me copy things down from the chalkboard.”
Mason LIFE is one of only 31 such offerings at universities throughout the United States that provides a four-year program with a residential component for special needs students. Its mission is to provide young adults whose disabilities might otherwise exclude them from higher education with a university experience.
Mason LIFE started as a pilot program in 2002 under the College of Education and Human Development with support from the Kellar Institute for Human disAbilities. Beginning with only three students, it now serves more than 50. The program offers its own academic courses in literature, math, and writing, plus instruction on employment, independent living, and social and recreational development.
Its mentorship component enhances the learning experience for students like Moore who wish to take courses on a variety of subjects—from English, art, and foreign languages to music and dance, science, and religion. It also serves a dual purpose by giving degree-seeking Mason students valuable hands-on experience in working with these individuals.
Zeynep Biron, for instance, also in her third year of studies at Mason LIFE, wanted to take Communications 101. Biron was paired with Eva Alcala, a first-year graduate student working on her master’s degree in special education. Alcala walked to class with Biron three days a week, and helped her take notes and complete in-class assignments. Afterward, they tackled homework together and studied for exams.
“At first I was shy and scared, and I didn’t want to talk to people,” Biron says of the experience. “Now I’m more independent and strong for who I am. More open-minded and flexible.”
Alcala not only aided Biron academically, she even assisted her with social interactions, especially during group projects. “Sometimes I’d notice she was shy,” Alcala says, “so I would ask her questions. I never wanted to put her on the spot, but I wanted to help her talk to the people in her group.”
Biron admits one of the biggest challenges she faces at Mason is relating to others. “The hardest part is speaking up for myself,” she says, “or meeting new people and learning not to be afraid of what other people might say or do around me.”
Interacting with her mentor, though, was a different story. Biron says the best part of working with Alcala was “just working together. Hanging out. Sometimes we’d go get coffee or do other things.”
And for Alcala, seeing Biron’s transformation was deeply rewarding. “She’s become so much more independent,” she says. “That’s one of the things I noticed in a very short time of working with Zeynep. She’s just very independent, much more than when I first met her.”
And the benefits of mentoring extend in both directions. Being with Biron forced Alcala to unwind. “Zeynep’s very patient and happy,” she says. “Whenever I was stressed out, we would get together and I felt like I would decompress. I saw how much she had going on with school and her work, and I kind of had to step back and think, ‘See? Everything is okay.’”
Like Alcala, Mishlawi formed a bond with Moore that stretched beyond academics. At first, Moore was frustrated by her attempts to help him, but by the end of the semester, he came to rely on her.
“Just thinking about it makes me want to tear up a little,” she says, describing how one day, when Moore was struggling to choose what classes to take next semester, he asked Mishlawi for help. A staff member interjected. “She said, ‘No, she doesn’t have to tell you what to take,’” Mishlawi recalls. “But Nick said, ‘No, I want her opinion.’ Things like that have really touched me, because now he’s just completely different with me.”
Mishlawi also credits mentoring with teaching her patience, a skill she knows she’ll value in her career. “I may be impatient with some things,” she says, “but when it comes to my students, I have all the patience in the world. They’re trying really hard, and [that] makes me want to do anything I can to help them understand.”
Typically Mason LIFE mentors volunteer without pay for one semester, and then are compensated for their time if they continue in the program. Mishlawi, for instance, receives a stipend for her classroom mentoring work. Mentors also provide support in the program’s residential housing facility, and many help Mason LIFE students fulfill employment obligations through the internship program. Mentors accompany the students to their jobs and support them throughout their workday.
The Mason LIFE program also promotes a number of employment opportunities after graduation. In the past mail services and cafeteria duties have been the biggest employers of program graduates, but these days the forerunner is childcare. Now many Mason LIFE students find work as preschool assistants and school aides after completing the program, having gained that skill set by assisting in the university’s Child Development Center.
Students who finish the Mason LIFE program are awarded a certificate of completion that highlights their area of concentration and their work specialty.
“It’s a meaningful certificate,” says Mason LIFE director Heidi Graff, an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development, because it shows employers real proof of their expertise. “When they finish with us, they have credentialing to say to their employer, look I’ve done all these things. I’ve spent time studying this topic and this work setting.”
For some mentors, the personal and professional rewards of the job have led them to make huge life changes. Mishlawi was so moved by her mentoring involvement, she decided to switch her major from biology to occupational therapy, a field that, she explains, “kind of bridges biology and this area of work. So it combines the physical and the mental part.”
Swapping majors is somewhat common for mentors, says Graff, who estimates it happens at least twice each semester. “It’s always a joy for me when I have what I consider a convert,” she says. “Someone who had thought they would do something else, but will come back and do their master’s in special education because they worked with us as an undergrad.”
Even those who decide to remain in their initial field of study can find their outlook changed after mentoring. Graff tells of an engineering major who had worked at Mason LIFE for four years and was ultimately torn between continuing with engineering and switching to a career in special education.
“I told him, look, maybe you won’t do this as a profession,” Graff says, “but someday you’ll be in a position to hire others. And you’ll think about our students as the wonderful, consistent, reliable workers that they are. It has a broader impact than just the actual experience.”
This type of larger worldview begins right on campus, with exposure to the greatly varied student population that makes up Mason’s essential identity. For students like Mishlawi, it’s all a part of the university’s distinctive appeal.
“The thing I like about Mason is that they accept everybody,” she says. “There’s no discrimination of special needs college students.
“I know people who need jobs. I tell them, you should work at Mason LIFE because you’re helping people, and you learn so much. People say to me, ‘Oh, you’re teaching them a lot.’ I’m not. They’re teaching me a lot more than I’m teaching them.”
To learn more about Mason LIFE or volunteer with the program, visit masonlife.gmu.edu.