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Next Steps at Vanderbilt students ready to take on the world

Published May 31, 2017
by Jessica Pawlarczyk

Next Steps at Vanderbilt, Tennessee’s first postsecondary education program for young people with intellectual disabilities, honored its seventh cohort in a commencement ceremony in April. All five graduates have secured employment after a rigorous two-year experience that included coursework, life skills training and internships. 

“We are so proud of our graduating students and the paths that they have paved for many future success stories,” said Associate Dean for Professional Education Sharon Shields in her address to a standing-room-only crowd at the Wyatt Center. “We know you will go on to do amazing things in life; to be agents of change; and make a difference in this world. And how do we know that will happen? Because you have been amazing agents of change right here at Vanderbilt, and you have made a difference for us all.”

Next Steps was founded in 2010 with support from the Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. It is currently housed in the No. 1 nationally ranked Department of Special Education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development.

A unique part of the program is the pairing of Next Steps students with “Ambassadores”—Vanderbilt students who serve as peer mentors throughout their Vanderbilt experience. Ambassadore and graduating Vanderbilt senior Abby Morgan congratulated the graduates for their passion and determination.

“This graduating class has taught me to hold high expectations in many ways, but most importantly, in friendship,” Morgan said. “They have shown through their friendships with each and their Ambassadores how to truly support friends and recognize the gifts that we all have.”

Jamal Underwood, one of five the Next Steps 2017 graduates, took the stage to address friends, family, students and local reporters. During his speech, he recounted being diagnosed with autism in 1999 at Vanderbilt.

“… Fast-forward 18 years later, God opened the door for me to come to Next Steps and to be on this very same campus where I was diagnosed,” he said. “This innovative program has opened so many doors for me. Next Steps has allowed me to meet so many new friends and colleagues … They will have a special place in my heart and life forever.”

He credits Next Steps with helping him develop a greater sense of confidence and independence. “I’ve learned how to use my abilities and go outside my boundaries, like learning how to use the bus system, learning how to cook, and taking classes with typical Vanderbilt students.”

He earned a round of applause and cheers when he announced that he had accepted a job with the Davidson County Clerk’s office, where he served as an intern during his time at Next Steps.

“I am excited about (partnering) with Next Steps at Vanderbilt and even more excited that Jamal will be joining our staff,” said Brenda Wynn, Davidson County Clerk. “One of my goals since becoming county clerk has been to embrace diversity within the office. Having the opportunity to hire a data entry clerk of Jamal’s caliber (90 words per minute with no errors) benefits him, the County Clerk’s office and the city as a whole. It’s a win-win.”

Farewell remarks were made by Associate Dean for Graduate Education and Undergraduate Affairs Craig Smith, who emphasized the program’s outstanding success, as evidenced by the program’s upcoming expansion into a four-year experience. He also emphasized how the program has enriched the Vanderbilt experience for all students.

“Your participation in Next Steps and your accomplishments through the program are a living testament to the importance and value of our institutional values of diversity and inclusiveness,” Smith told the gathering. “This clearly illustrates how a diverse community is an enriched community.”

 The five 2017 graduates of the Next Steps at Vanderbilt program

The five 2017 graduates of the Next Steps at Vanderbilt program are (from left):Jason van Wulven, Jamal Underwood, Deondre “Dre” Howard, Amber Cameron, and Nila Huddleston.

» Watch the 2017 Next Steps at Vanderbilt graduation ceremony


Meet the Next Steps Class of 2017

Amber Cameron

AmberWhile in the Next Steps program, Amber Cameron completed coursework in procedures in transition to adulthood, health services delivery to diverse populations, family intervention and adolescent psychology. “I’ve grown in maturity. Being in the program has made me more independent and motivated. I’m more of a self-advocate,” she said.

Cameron came to Next Steps with the goal of working with children, and her internships helped her gain the necessary experience to achieve this goal. She had an internship at the Susan Gray School, the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, the Bill Wilkerson Center’s Preschool for Children with Autism and the Belmont Weekday School. She is now employed with UNA Baptist Child Care as a teacher’s assistant.


Deondre “Dre” Howard

DreDeondre “Dre’” Howard is passionate about healthy eating and fitness, and his Next Steps experience prepared him for a career in these two areas. Howard interned at the Vanderbilt Recreation and Wellness Center and the Last Drop Coffee Shop. He also attended and participated in several Vanderbilt sporting events, including the Special Olympics and weekly workouts with his Ambassadores. 

Howard’s coursework included oceanography, American sign language and nutrition. For his capstone project, Howard taught an exercise class at Bridges for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Howard is a true trailblazer, as he is the first Next Steps student who is deaf. Thanks to Howard, many students in the program are learning American Sign Language.

“If you come to Next Steps, you will make friends,” he said, adding he will miss “… making friends, going to class and working out.” Howard is currently employed at Eat Well Nashville, a healthy kitchen and food delivery service.


Nila Huddleston

NilaNila Huddleston is a talented arts enthusiast who thrives in the spotlight.

“I’m going to New York and going to be a star, singer and actress,” she said. “I am going to find my dream.”

During her time at Next Steps, Huddleston engaged in several arts and entertainment-themed activities: She presented at several conferences, was interviewed for a Special Books for Special Kids video, recorded with the band Rascal Flatts and took hip-hop and Zumba classes at the Vanderbilt Dance Studio.

Her coursework also included songwriting, Western art, and costuming and makeup design. For a class assignment, Huddleston wrote and performed an original song titled “The Nila Way.” She also completed an intricate quilting project for her costume design class.

While Huddleston is passionate about becoming a Broadway star, she is also passionate for the culinary arts. She volunteered at a soup kitchen during her senior trip and held food service internships at the Common Grounds Market, Vanderbilt Dining and Moe’s Southwest Grill. She now works at Moe’s part time.


Jamal Underwood

JamalThroughout the course of his Next Steps journey, Underwood has exhibited a tremendous amount of personal and academic growth.

“I used to not be as outgoing; I used to be shy,” Underwood says. That’s certainly not the case anymore. Underwood has become a frequently requested speaker and presenter for Next Steps, and in 2016, he co-presented at the State of the Art Conference in Washington, D.C. 

As a Next Steps student, he completed coursework in survey of jazz, sociology, anthropology and Southern religion and culture. He also gained valuable Internet technology skills with his internships at the Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, the Vanderbilt Hill Center IT Department, the Tennessee District Attorney’s Office, and the Davidson County Clerk’s Office. He has accepted a position at the Davidson County Clerk’s office where he processes and catalogues mail and compiles computer-based reports.


Jason van Wulven

JasonJason van Wulven is often described as a “people person.” He strives to establish genuine connections with those around him, making him the perfect Next Steps open house host and tour guide for visiting high school students. His coursework included stars and galaxies, oceanography, arts education for young children and service learning. Through his coursework and internships, Van Wulven improved his computer skills.

Van Wulven’s sunny attitude was evident from his first week at Next Steps, when a question was posted in class: “What is one of your life goals?” Van Wulven immediately responded: “To be happy!” He has achieved that and brought much joy to others in the process.

Van Wulven has focused on gaining real-world experience in the service industry, where he enjoys building one-on-one relationships with customers. He interned at Vanderbilt Recreation, Vanderbilt Concessions, the Common Grounds Market and McDonald’s. He is currently employed as a crew member at McDonald’s.

» View a full recording of the Next Steps graduation ceremony.

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