In their class video, they mugged for the camera and some of them wore a Superman cape.
But they also talked about how their two- to four-year college experience at the University of North Florida taught them to be more independent and responsible. They learned how to live away from their families — some on campus, some off — and work with others through internships and part-time jobs. They learned how to manage their time and finances, be on time and speak in public.
“I learned things I never would have thought I needed,” said Darius Patterson. “To rely on myself.”
Thursday, Patterson and seven other young adults who have intellectual disabilities completed UNF’s On Campus Transition program and became college graduates.
“I can’t believe I made it,” said Collin Hazelip, who said he looks forward “to what the future has in store.”
They wore caps and gowns and walked across a stage to receive a diploma from UNF President John Delaney. Afterward, upon instructions from Delaney, they switched their cap tassles from right to left.
On Campus Transition, or OCT, is a 10-year partnership between UNF and The Arc Jacksonville, which serves Northeast Florida people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. Since its inception, 50 people have graduated the program.
“The purpose is to help [special-needs] students experience college alongside of their peers,” said program director Bernadette Gismonde. “Students … audit UNF classes, join college clubs, participate in internships and enjoy true college life. We have had students participate in Mr. and Ms. UNF contests, try out to be the school mascot and been elected officials in school clubs.
“There are no lines in the sand,” she said.
Most of the graduates now live away from home and have part-time jobs either on campus or in the community. Now many of them want to spread their wings and seek full-time work.
Graduate Alexandria Perricone said she joined the program “because it was an opportunity to see what it was like to be more independent and live alone, the chance to learn new things and not rely on my parents.”
She accomplished her mission.
“I learned how to speak up more, speak in public without being scared. I learned more about money and doing stuff on my own without someone there for me,” Perricone said.
The diplomas she and the others received acknowledge that they participated in two or four years’ worth of academics, internships and skills building. But they also signify much more, Gismonde said.
“College was not something they ever dreamed of in the beginning,” she said. “The world of disabilities continues to change and develop over time. Some parents will tell us that their doctors advised them ‘not to expect much’ from their child when first diagnosed. Some parents were told their child would never walk or talk and now … college is a milestone they have accomplished.”
At Thursday’s ceremony, family and friends in the audience alternated crying and cheering. Sally Hazelip, mother of Collin Hazelip, was one of them.
“He has accomplished so much, navigating the campus and classes,” she said. “He has done an amazing job.”
Collin now works part-time at Publix, but, armed with his diploma, hopes to move on to something full-time and “bigger and better,” she said.
Chris Decent, UNF’s vice president of development, reminded the new graduates that “anything is possible.” He told them about his brother, Greg, who was born with cerebral palsy. His parents were told he would never walk or go to a traditional school or college, he said.
But he did and is now a professional ski instructor in Colorado, he said.
Decent also reminded the students that they had joined an exclusive club. Only 7 percent of the world’s population are college graduates, he said.
In the early years of the program, Delaney said he always worried that “something bad” would happen to an OCT student, given the size and potential for drama on the large UNF campus. His worry grew two to three years in when housing was added to the program.
He sought the opinion of a parent on how things were going. The parent said there was a big problem.
“My heart sank,” Delaney said.
But the problem was not a UNF problem.
“The parent said, ‘Our kids don’t want to come home on the weekend.’ They had flown out of the nest,” he said.
Delaney said OCT students have become an integral part of UNF.
“I typically don’t thank graduates,” he said. “But you made us better. You made the university better. Thank you.”
Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109