WESTFIELD – Jamie Curran is “excited” to share her story – and passion of wanting to help others with disabilities – today in Boston with State House legislators.
Curran was selected by Massachusetts Advocates for Children (MAC) to provide testimony about her experience as a former Mass Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Initiative (MAICEI) student when two bills among 49 will be presented during a hearing of the Joint Committee on Higher Education. Rep. Patricia A. Haddad, D-Somerset, is sponsoring H.634, and Sen. Barbara A. L’Italien, D-Lawrence, is sponsoring S.698 – both centering on “allowing persons with intellectual disabilities (ID) and autism to access state colleges and universities to gain skills necessary to work and live independently in the community as adults.”
Sherry Elander, M.Ed., special education teacher and transition specialist with the Westfield Public Schools, will join Curran to support her, along with Julia Landau, an attorney and senior project director at MAC.
“I am very proud of this young lady,” said Elander.
Landau echoed those sentiments.
“Jamie’s testimony will illustrate to lawmakers the opportunities for young people when doors to higher education are opened further for them,” said Landau, adding that state residents are encouraged to contact their local state representatives in support of these bills. “Western Massachusetts has been at the forefront for supporting these measures, especially Westfield State University, Holyoke Community College, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.”
On Tuesday afternoon at Westfield State University, Curran, now 22, discussed the highlights of her testimony. She attended Paper Mill and North Middle schools, and received a certificate of completion in 2013 from Westfield Technical Academy. Curran is the daughter of Lynn and Kevin Curran.
“I know I will be nervous when I start reading my testimony,” said Curran, noting she has practiced several times with Elander since three minutes are allotted for each person speaking.
Since 2007, hundreds of young people with disabilities similar to Curran’s have successfully been included in college through the state’s “groundbreaking” grant program called MAICEI, according to Johanne Pino, project coordinator, MAC. The two bills will allow state colleges and universities to establish guidelines governing admission as well as course selection and enrollment. Also, the bills would require that the goals, mission statements and performance measures of state colleges and universities provide for the inclusion of students with ID and autism, and would address steps to support inclusive dormitory living. Additionally, the bills would codify the MAICEI grant program and allow the special education process to consider higher education as an option for students with disabilities who are 18 to 22. Task force recommendations have noted that students would “greatly benefit” even though they would not earn a college degree, added Pino.
As part of her testimony, Curran said she will explain her experiences as a student for two years at Westfield State University under the MAICEI program.
“I took four classes, Social Work, Psychology, Art, and Introduction to Students with Exceptional Learning Needs,” said Curran. “I really enjoyed Social Work because I learned the meaning of social justice and the code of ethics that social workers must follow.”
Those classes – as well as participating in campus activities including dances, going to the library and fundraising events – expanded her view of the opportunities awaiting her.
“I had homework for the first time and my education coach helped me a lot, but I also did some at home as well,” said Curran.
Lyndsey Nunes, Westfield State’s MAICEI program coordinator, worked closely with Curran to ensure her success.
“Jamie is a remarkable young woman,” said Nunes. “Her drive and motivation to succeed and outperform all expectations is inspiring. I greatly admire her passion to enhancing the lives of others with disabilities.”
Curran noted that when she first started at Westfield State, she used the PVTA van.
“My ed coach taught me how to use the van and with my new freedom, my confidence began to grow,” said Curran. “Shortly after beginning college, I began studying for my driver’s permit and by the end of my last semester, I had my license and drove myself.”
As Curran continues her studies to earn her GED through Domus, Inc., she also relishes her first job which is working in the Dining Commons at Westfield State during the school year.
“I enjoy interacting with the students,” said Curran, adding she has also learned important customer service, organizational and food safety skills.
Presently, she is working one-on-one this summer with an 8-year-old girl at Kamp for Kids on Russell Road.
“She’s a sweet girl,” said Curran, noting that time is spent each day experiencing a variety of programs including art and walks on the nature trail. “We’re a team and set goals together – including finishing the entire nature trail by the end of the summer.”
As Curran anticipates her next endeavors – at press time – she was awaiting a call from the Open Society Foundations, based in New York, since she had applied for a Fellowship to work on increasing opportunities for individuals who have participated in MAICEI programs.
“Young adults who don’t have their diploma or cannot pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System deserve the right to full employment opportunities,” said Curran. “I want to be able to change my community, to be an inclusive and diverse place, a community that accepts everybody no matter their level of education.”
Curran added there is a “significant need” for change for all individuals with disabilities to have a “chance in the world like any other person.”
Curran said her proposed Fellowship project – which she expects would be a full-time endeavor for one year – would bring people together who are committed to helping other young adults like herself to achieve their dreams of paid employment in careers they enjoy and where they can excel.
“I want to live on my own someday and going to college helped me to realize that I can do things, anything when I put my mind to it,” said Curran.
This ambitious young woman has also envisioned her “dream job” – after successfully completing her GED requirements.
“My future plans include working with students with disabilities and I hope to be employed by the Westfield Public Schools as a paraprofessional someday,” said Curran, noting she worked as a substitute paraprofessional for Elander at the East Mountain Road site from March through June of this year.
When Curran wraps up her testimony she hopes her three minutes will enlighten legislators to what is possible when individuals are given a chance at higher education.
“From my own experiences I have observed the need for increased advocacy, networking, and educating others about people’s abilities,” said Curran. “I know how to speak up for myself in different situations and self-advocate. Going to college gave me the experience of being a part of the student life on campus and helped me to grow and learn.”
As Curran notes she has grown “tremendously” over the past few years, she hopes her message of inclusiveness makes an impression with lawmakers.
“I know from my own experience how much of a difference MAICEI made in my life,” said Curran. “I think about upcoming students who have intellectual disabilities or autism and am proud that I can show what can happen when people are given a chance.”
“More young people with intellectual disabilities should consider this program because it is an opportunity to attend a fully inclusive college program that will greatly enhance their self-determination skills,” said Nunes.