FGCU’s R.I.S.E. Academy Celebrates First Graduating Cohort

Abigail Muth, Staff Writer

FGCU’s R.I.S.E. program, previously the Soaring Eagles Academy, will have their first cohort of students walking the stage this May in preparation for their students graduating this summer. 

R.I.S.E. stands for Real Independence, Successful Employment and according to their website, is the first academy in Southwest Florida for adults with intellectual disabilities. It is a two year program from which students receive a community employment credential. 

In the program, students complete a total of 41 credit hours consisting of core inclusive classes catered specifically for this program, along with five elective courses. All core inclusive courses are taught by the program coordinators, Alyssa Sanabria and Kaitlynn Curwick. University Colloquium is one of the required electives. 

“Both of us are previous special education teachers for six years plus, and [core inclusive] classes are open to traditional students to take as elective courses as well,” Sanabria said. 

In 2016, Florida’s governor signed the Florida Postsecondary Comprehensive Transition Act (FS 1004.6495). This Act allows schools within the state of Florida to apply for funding of programs, grants and scholarships associated with opportunities for students with unique abilities, according to fcsua.net

FGCU’s R.I.S.E. program is currently funded by a three-year grant, which supplied all the funding for classes and staff, along with a $7,000 scholarship for each student yearly that covers their tuition and meal plan. This scholarship does not currently cover on-campus living for students, but Sanabria is hoping to apply for this funding in their next grant. 

The program has requirements for incoming students, and only accepts up to 10 students per cohort. They also only accept new students in preparation for the fall semester, and there can be up to 20 students in the program at a time. When the first cohort of the program graduates this year, a new group of students will join in the fall. 

The students in each cohort will all graduate at the same time and take the same core inclusive courses, but may not be taking the same electives. R.I.S.E. students are given the same list of elective courses to choose from as a traditional student, but are given a limited list of electives that do not have prerequisites or a required major unlock. 

Graduating student Isabella Boconegra is currently serving her internship at the Little Eagles Learning Academy, hoping to become a paraprofessional after graduation.

“I really didn’t fit in when I was in high school, I didn’t have a lot of friends. But when I fit in here, I grew my friendships and I met a lot of nice people who believed in me, and that’s why I believe that I will be a professional,” she said. 

R.I.S.E. students are encouraged to explore extracurricular opportunities on campus, which allows them to get more involved in campus life activities, even if they are unable to live on campus. 

“Students can join on campus clubs, sororities, fraternities, and have access to anything a traditional student has, which is a really cool feature,” Sanabria said. 

Students are graded on Satisfactory Academic Performance, which is monitored by the coordinators and is based on whether or not students are completing assignments based on their ability level. 

“So we factor in the student’s ability level and then what the work should look like. So you know, there’s that aspect, are they attending class? Are they actively participating in group activities? And that’s how we look at their grades for [core inclusive] courses,” Sanabria said. 

Any elective that a student chooses to take is pass/fail based on if the coordinator’s believe the student met those standards. 

Before they graduate, students are required to attend an internship, which counts as four credit hours. They are encouraged to choose internships based on what field they are going into after graduation. 

When asked why she chose this position for her internship hours, Boconegra said, “Because I really love kids, and working with kids is my favorite thing to do.”

In addition to being encouraged to join campus groups, R.I.S.E. students are also able to get jobs on-campus. Graduating student Tajha Ilerant is currently working for campus dining and as a resident assistant in South Village. Although the scholarship does not cover campus housing, working as an resident assistant allows students to live in the dorms for free. 

Ilerant will be returning to FGCU in the fall as a degree-seeking student, aiming to receive a bachelor’s degree in communication. 

“But now I’m coming back to be a general ed. student, and to show people that I’m able to sit in a classroom and be just like them and obtain my bachelor’s degree,” Ilerant said. “I feel like that’s my motivation right there and that’s the reason why I’m coming back.”

Ilerant’s grandmother Frances Jackson has been a motivator along the way, as she encouraged the R.I.S.E. program. Ilerant also gets motivation from Wanda Johnson and Kelly Stevenson. Ilerant’s life verse is Jeremiah 29:11, which has assisted progress through the program as a reminder to be patient with the process. 

“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future,’ reads the New International Version of Jeremiah 29:11.