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The Center on Disabilities is known for assisting students with disabilities to develop their full potential by facilitating accommodations and providing learning opportunities. However, the Center does not stop with students with disabilities; we also have a structured program to assist our student employees in developing the skills and attributes necessary to be successful in the workplace after graduation.
A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "How Should Colleges Prepare Students to Succeed in Today's Global Economy?" (January 11, 2007) noted several attributes that employers are seeking in job applicants. The top three were "teamwork skills," "critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills," and "oral/written communication." At the Center on Disabilities, we have developed a paraprofessional program design to provide learning opportunities for student paraprofessionals to gain these skills.
The program begins with a structured application and interview process. Students are screened in a manner similar to outside employment with a thorough application review and a committee interview process. Students are asked to describe their technical skills, teamwork ability and work ethic. After hiring, paraprofessionals are required to attend an orientation program that familiarizes them with the Center's mission, values, structure, disability etiquette and job expectations. The students are then placed with a supervisor in one area and trained in the required skills for those job tasks.
Within the first semester, the paraprofessionals are then cross-trained in a second area. Many of the Center's paraprofessionals are able to work in any area and perform tasks that are specialized to each area. For instance, paraprofessionals that have been at the Center over a year may be able to run the front desk, proctor exams, convert printed text to Braille, and assist with coordinating an outreach event all in the same week.
In addition to working in multiple areas, the paraprofessionals are also required to complete two professional development workshops such as the Matador Involvement Center's Leadership Institute offerings, and meet with a career counselor. This past semester a group of the Center's paraprofessionals participated in the Career Center's VISTA Card Sort program that assists students with matching their aptitudes and motivation with future careers. The skills and information the paraprofessionals learn in these settings are then practiced in a real setting. For instance, a student might take a workshop on dealing with difficult people and then have an experience at the front desk the next week with a person that is upset and demanding. Supervisors work closely with the paraprofessionals to select learning opportunities that will best enhance the person's skills. At the end of the school year, each paraprofessional is given a formal evaluation which includes setting goals for the future.
The paraprofessionals in the program appreciate the unique opportunity afforded them by working at the Center on Disabilities. They frequently comment on the positive working environment and the amazing students that they are here to assist, both directly and indirectly. They learn quickly, that regardless of individual circumstances, we all have an opportunity everyday to learn and to make a difference.