It's hard to wipe the smile from Taylor Golliher's face when she talks about attending University of Tennessee football games.
Her parents, both alums, instilled in her the Volunteer spirit, and now, she's following in their footsteps.
"I like all my classes, I like what I'm taking this semester, all my professors," Golliher said.
She's one of 15 students in UT's FUTURE program, which gives students with intellectual disabilities the chance to attend college.
"They don't necessarily have to have a high school diploma, they don't have to meet the eligibility requirements of the university, it's a different process for them to apply, but they're gaining so much from the two years experience here," said Liz Fussell, the program's director.
FUTURE started at UT last year through a grant from the U.S. Dept. of Education. Students attend specialized classes and audit one academic and one physical education class per semester.
"It's called dignity of risk," Fussell said. "And so, once they learn to get to class, we check with them, we watch them, we follow them, we do whatever, but they learn the path there, and they can be independent. That independence is what builds their self-esteem, builds their ability to do other things, and the impetus for them to say, 'oh, now I can do that,' and keep moving up the goals."
The students get plenty of help along the way from the 65 student mentors who do everything from escorting them to class to helping with homework to teaching them how to balance a checkbook.
"I think it's the best thing, not even for just the mentors and the students, but everybody else on campus, so it's a huge impact just getting it out there and letting everyone know that it's happening, and it really just creates really great campus diversity," said Ericka Spann, a UT sophomore who acts as a mentor to Dustin Knoernschild. "Really, like, on campus, Dustin knows more people than I do, so they're like campus figures."
Knoernschild and the other FUTURE students also have internships on campus. He's set to graduate this May, along with seven other students. Seven more are in their first year of the program this school year.
"It's a lot of fun, I'm in a lot of classes, I take a plant class, and we got to football games a lot," he said.
The funding for the program lasts for five years, so organizers are looking for ways to make the program self-sufficient. They'll need to do that by 2015.
In the meantime, they hope to spread the word to others about the opportunities now available.
"A lot of our students, if they didn't have employment or a job placement when they left high school, they might be sitting at home now because there's a gap in the services on the adult side, so if they didn't have that connection, it's a possibility they would be on their own, sitting at home, and so, that's why these programs exist, so that there is something to continue, they're learning with their peers, they also have the opportunity to be on campus," Fussell said. "If there's one thing for parents out there is to know that there is an expectation for their child, that once they leave high school that that does not end, that now college is the opportunity for them."