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Destination Possible

Emily White never thought she’d attend college, much less graduate. But that’s exactly what she did on Friday, May 13. White was one of the thousands of newly minted UGA grads to walk across the stage at Commencement. White is a member of the Destination Dawgs program, which provides individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities with an inclusive undergraduate experience. Sitting to White’s right and lending support is academic development program director Lisa Ulmer. (Photo by Peter Frey/UGA)

UGA's Destination Dawgs program provides an inclusive undergraduate experience for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities

Emily White never thought she’d attend college, much less use it as a springboard for starting a career.

It’s not uncommon for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities to expect their educational experiences to end after high school.

That’s what UGA’s Destination Dawgs aims to change.

“Access to higher education is one of the biggest barriers to youth who are classified into special education in primary school,” says Carol Britton Laws, director of Destination Dawgs and an associate clinical professor of disability studies.

Inspired by the university’s Student Government Association, Destination Dawgs launched in spring 2017. Based in UGA’s Institute on Human Development and Disability, 19 students have graduated from the program since its inception.

“Gaining knowledge, skills, and independence is important to all youth who are transitioning from high school into adult life,” Laws says. “Students with intellectual disabilities should have that opportunity as well.”

The Dignity of Risk

There are similar programs at other universities in Georgia, but Destination Dawgs stands out in how students integrate into campus. In other programs, students enroll in courses separately. In Destination Dawgs, students take classes with other UGA students and, like UGA’s Experiential Learning program, are required to complete an internship.

“Destination Dawgs gives those with disabilities a choice about their future,” says Lisa Ulmer PhD ’08, the academic development program director. “If students want to continue to grow and learn but they’ve aged out of the public school system, they can come to UGA and have the opportunity alongside age-appropriate peers in college.

Lisa Ulmer is the academic development program director for Destination Dawgs. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

“The biggest barrier for our students is that most of them haven’t experienced a lot of independence. Our goal is to let our students experience the dignity of risk.”

The “dignity of risk” means safe, supported exposure to new things. For example, many students in the program have never ridden a bus on their own before. As part of Destination Dawgs, they gain a sense of independence through a safety net of support.

 Joining Dawg Nation

For White, a 2020 cohort member, Destination Dawgs helped her discover her passion for marketing and communication. Coming from a family of UGA alumni, White was thrilled to experience college life for herself.

“I really wanted to go to college to focus on my career. I wanted to explore different areas to find my area of interest,” says White, who plans to apply for jobs after graduating this spring.

White was heavily involved in the UGA community during her time in the program. She delivered speeches to groups around campus, participated in the Student Government Association, served as the vice president of advocacy for the nonprofit Extra Special People, and joined the newly established Students for Disabilities Advocacy club.

This spring, White began an internship in event coordination  at Bethlehem Church, near her hometown of Winder. And she’s grateful for how Destination Dawgs staff and volunteers helped empower her.

“They help me get to where I need to be, to grow independently, and to reach the goals I have set and created for myself while in Destination Dawgs,” she says.

Winning Over Campus and the Community

Students begin the program with foundational courses, such as Learning to Learn, Health and Wellness, and Introduction to Personal Finance. They also complete a battery of personality tests and career quizzes to pinpoint their passions.

The program is awesome, and the staff are great. They help me get to where I need to be, to grow independently, and to reach the goals I have set and created for myself while in Destination Dawgs.”—Emily White, Destination Dawgs Class of 2022

In their second year, students work with staff and their support systems to determine which classes and potential internships can help them meet their goals. One student was interested in outdoor recreation and wildlife management, so his final semester included a course in park management and an internship at a local park.

Others have worked with Athens businesses, nonprofits, and even within UGA, with the ultimate goal of finding jobs after graduation.

Emily White, left, enjoys lunch with other students and peer mentors at the Tate Student Center. All of the program’s peer mentors are volunteers, and between 35 and 45 take part each semester. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

Another unique facet of Destination Dawgs is that the program’s peer mentors are volunteers. Student volunteers work flexible hours, and the program has anywhere from 35 to 45 volunteers a semester. Ulmer explained that individuals with disabilities often have enough paid support in their lives, so having a fellow peer or friend who volunteers their time creates a more balanced relationship.

“The desire to be a meaningful part of society is inherent in all of us, so programs like Destination Dawgs give students a chance to be part of the university community and for others to recognize them as part of that community,” Ulmer says. “This program gives students with disabilities a choice about their future.”

To date, students have attended classes in 12 UGA schools and colleges taught by more than 100 UGA instructors. It’s not uncommon for Ulmer and her team to get emails from professors at the end of the semester, explaining how grateful they were to have a Destination Dawg in their class.

“It happens all the time. By the end of the semester, professors or instructors will be playing pickup ball with our students at Ramsey or they’ll eat together,” Ulmer says.

After the program’s first semester, the team received an anonymous letter that made Ulmer proud to be part of an inclusive campus. “The letter said we had cheerleaders on campus that we didn’t know about. ‘Thank you for changing the lives of those with disabilities and making the university a better place for all.”

This story will appear in the Summer 2022 issue of Georgia Magazine.