Wearing traditional black robes and scarlet and gray tassels, the students — the first graduating cohort from the Transition Options in Postsecondary Settings program — walked single file to their seats at the front of the room, sat down and eagerly awaited for their moment to walk across the stage and receive their certificates at a commencement ceremony held on Friday.
Formed five years ago, the TOPS program exists under Ohio State’s Nisonger Center, a University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities that offers services such as clinics and is involved in activities like psychopharmacology research, according to its website. The center provides education, service and research to individuals of all ages.
The TOPS program is offered to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and provides the opportunity to participate in college classes and internships, receive job and employment preparation and experience campus social life, according to the TOPS website.
The program at OSU is one of 27 similar programs offered throughout the country. TOPS helps prepare individuals for higher education or employment after they have completed high school, said TOPS program manager Eliseo Jimenez.
“We like to marry the academics and the employment piece together so that when they graduate from our program, they have a job and the academics to back it up,” Jimenez said.
Through a program structure that emphasizes four main goals — academics, employment, independent living and self-determination and student development — students in TOPS are given the choice to participate in a two- or four-year course of study.
Four of the students recognized at the TOPS commencement ceremony received four-year generalized studies certificates, which means they completed 120 credit hours — 60 academic hours and 60 employment hours — in their four years within the program, Jimenez said.
Three students received a two-year certificate of completion, which means they completed 60 credit hours — 30 academic hours and 30 employment hours — in their two years within the TOPS program.
Jimenez said he thinks the program’s first commencement ceremony celebrates the hard work and dedication the TOPS students have put into succeeding at their personal goals.
“The biggest piece is that it is not about the disability. It is not ‘them’ and ‘us,’ it should be one. I think that it is just seeing the university coming together to celebrate how we achieved this giant goal,” he said. “We set the bar high, and I think that (at the) graduation, people (saw) that we have students who can reach that bar. Some have actually gone beyond it.”
Ashlee Bryant, who began working with the TOPS program as a disability career specialist in January, said she thinks the hard work put forth by the students is seen in the personal and professional growth she has witnessed throughout the semester.
“It has been rewarding to see how much progress they have made in such a short time in that aspect of it. And seeing them get jobs and start working and how they learn. It is really nice,” she said. “I just think all the hard work that everyone put into it is what makes it really special. They are finally seeing all of their hard work being paid off. Being able to dress up like every other Ohio State student and feel included, I think that was so special and made me really happy.”
Mallory Workman, program coordinator for academics, said she thinks the commencement ceremony meant a lot to many of the students, as it allowed them to feel a part of the campus-wide commencement celebrations and was an opportunity for them to show off their school pride.
“I think one of the things our students are most proud of is just being a Buckeye in general,” she said. “All of them are constantly wearing Ohio State spirit wear, constantly walking around campus and you can see the pride on their faces and in the way that they walk. That they are Ohio State students.”
Workman added that she, like Bryant, has seen the students grow and mature in many areas throughout her four years working with the program.
“The progress that our students have made, both academically and employment-wise, and just maturity-wise and self-confidence-wise has been extremely noticeable for someone who has been here for a couple of years,” she said.
At a reception following the ceremony, Seamus McCord, who received his four-year generalized studies certificate, said he has had many great experiences as part of the program, especially his internship at the M.T. Wellness Clinic.
“I am just so happy to have achieved this. It has been a wonderful program. I’ve just loved these past four years,” he said. “I had no idea what I was getting into, but it has just been great. I have loved every minute of it … and it makes me look back and think how amazing it is.”
McCord said his advice to incoming TOPS students would be to work hard and enjoy the experience.
“Know that there will be lots of great opportunities here and they can be completely successful, so just always do their best and they will have a wonderful time and be glad to be here,” he said. “Try to get to know all of the people that you can and you will love doing this and it will be a wonderful experience for you for sure.”
Jimenez said he hopes guests of the commencement ceremony came away with a sense of inspiration. He added that he is excited for the future of TOPS and the incoming cohort of students expected to begin the program in autumn.
“The students make it worth your while. That is the kind of thing I love here,” he said. “I think inspiration in general, that is huge. I am inspired every day that I am here because the students keep me going. It is the little things that they do to let me know that it is worth being here and I think they feel the same way.”