May 11, 2012



K-State community EXCELLing together

By Patrice Scott

Manhattan will be flooded with students, friends and family this weekend for graduation.

But just a week before the huge festivities, an intimate group of 45 students with developmental disabilities enjoyed a graduation-like event made possible in part by two College of Education faculty volunteers. In less than three years, The Project Extending College Education for Lifelong Learning, or EXCELL, program has won an award, spawned a sister program and attracted the generosity of a local service organization.

The Little Apple Pilot Club presented a $4,000 check at the May 5 graduation ceremony where Willie the Wildcat made an appearance. Warren White, Project EXCELL founder and professor of special education, counseling and student affairs, said this gift would help sustain this important effort.

“This significant donation will allow us to operate for another semester,” White said. “We were overjoyed to learn that the Pilot Club believed in us enough and the students enrolled in Project EXCELL enough to help make their dream of going to college come true.”

The program offers two five-week sessions per semester and culminates in a graduation ceremony where students receive a certificate. K-State is the only four-year university in Kansas to offer such a program.

White founded Project EXCELL in 2009 and colleague Jim Teegarden, associate professor of special education, counseling and student affairs, joined White shortly after the program’s inception and they quickly grew the initiative into an award-winning program with the help of area adult service providers and UFM. Project EXCELL was the recipient of the 2010 University Professional and Continuing Education Association's Central Region Innovative Program Award.

Project EXCELL is part of a consortium that includes Manhattan, Wamego and other local entities serving adults with special needs and received two start-up grants – the only monies they will receive – from the Kansas Health Policy Authority as part of the economic stimulus. The strength of the program, White said, lies within its emphasis on dignity, self-respect, increased independence and inclusion.

Project EXCELL provides individuals with developmental disabilities an opportunity to experience college life through a variety of K-State-based classes such as sign language, music and dance, and vocational exploration. These half-day programs offer young adults with mild developmental disabilities age 18 and over a college-like experience that might not otherwise be available to them.

Additionally, through the collaboration of the K-State community and special education programs, Project EXCELL engages K-State student ambassadors, primarily undergraduate student volunteers, who serve as peer models to the project's attendees. Michelle Vreeland, Project EXCELL ambassador and undergraduate student in elementary education, believed she benefited from this experience.

“They (students) teach me as much as we teach them, which is probably the coolest thing,” Vreeland said. “I always leave in a better mood.”

A major component of the program is to bring students to campus so they can experience student life. “Classes are held at the Union and the students love being there,” White said. “We cannot thank the leadership of the K-State Student Union enough for providing space for our Saturday classes and for use of the Little Theatre for graduation.”

Bill Smriga, director of the Union, and Craig Johnson, director of Union operations, view this program as win-win.

“We both felt that this was a beneficial program worthy of our support,” Johnson said. “We are happy to have your students and staff in our facility.”

White said that Project EXCELL has been so successful that K-State–Salina launched a sister program in 2011.

“We are grateful that our program could be used as a model for the Salina community and that a whole new population of people with special needs now have access to a similar program.”