SUCCEED program keeps students socially engaged with diverse online activities

by | Jun 2, 2020

When campus closed, Jonathan Lidgus and Rachel Goldmeier kept SUCCEED students connected with Zoom Friday Fun Days.
SUCCEED social engagement

One of the key aspects of UMSL’s SUCCEED program is immersing students with intellectual and developmental disabilities in campus life. They learn important skills while living, studying and working among degree-seeking students. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Jonathan Lidgus, director of the University of Missouri–St. LouisSUCCEED program, wasn’t sure what was going to happen when campus closed during the spring semester.

The program is designed to teach students with intellectual and developmental disabilities independent living and job skills as they work toward a Chancellor’s Certificate. One of the key aspects of the program is immersing them in campus life at UMSL.

The closure presented a potential obstacle to that goal, but Lidgus was pleased with how his students responded.

“We were a little nervous about transitioning our student engagement and social activities online, but the exact opposite happened,” he said. “Our student engagement went through the roof.”

Lidgus and Rachel Goldmeier, SUCCEED student support specialist, eased the transition by outlining the basics of online learning and kept students connected by promoting a slate of diverse digital activities during the remaining weeks of the semester. They’ve planned more activities for the summer as well.

“We got a sense that things might move online,” Lidgus said. “So we started prepping our students for Zoom meetings, prepping them for Zoom classes, getting them comfortable with what their schedule at home would be. We also started doing town halls with their parents.”

But supporting the other crucial elements of the program – communication, interpersonal skills and social engagement – from a distance was more challenging.

“From the beginning, one of the most daunting tasks, as a social coach, was how do you teach interpersonal skills when you’re not in person?” Goldmeier said. “How do you keep people socially engaged? How do you do that online?”

Goldmeier had already been sending out a list of in-person activities to students each week to encourage campus involvement, and spring break gave her an opportunity to adjust her approach.

“Early on, I started changing from campus events to online events,” she said. “I thought, ‘What are free online events that students can access?’ I compiled events I thought would be interesting like concerts, cooking lessons and exercise classes. I tried to round it out so there were a variety of things that might interest people.”

It also got her thinking about the possibility of SUCCEED hosting its own events. The program had already thrown a successful Black History Month event about the intersection between disability and African American experiences.

That led to the creation of Zoom Friday Fun Days, which were hosted weekly from April 3 to May 15. They ended up being some of the most popular and well-attended events of the entire year and included activities such as an outdoor scavenger hunt, a game of Pictionary, a game show day, a movie night and a cooking demonstration.

It was cupcakes that drew the biggest crowd, though.

“We had 29 people in Zoom for cupcake decoration,” Goldmeier said. “Some of them were staff and volunteers, but we had a bunch of students on that call participating. I had a friend, an UMSL student, who came on and taught us.”

The activities were fun, but they were also essential in upholding one of SUCCEED’s core pillars – play. The others are live, learn and work. Lidgus recognizes the pillars might seem childish at first glance, especially play, but he said they’re things every college student learns how to balance one way or another.

“Play really comes into effect in terms of social skills in order to be able to tie everything together – being able to communicate with everybody in different ways,” Goldmeier said.

The students’ response also gave Lidgus and Goldmeier a renewed perspective. Some students had attended few in-person events but participated enthusiastically in Zoom Friday Fun Days. Goldmeier said it helped her see that some students wanted to be engaged, but they felt more comfortable and safer doing so online.

Lidgus noticed student participation carried over to coursework, too.

“Every student came to every class, from the time we left campus to the time the semester was over,” he said. “I did not have one person missing. When we were on campus, I would have at least two students per class period not show up because they overslept or something. The student engagement has been great.”

Digital outreach will continue during the summer with monthly events – an origami day on June 12, an aromatherapy session on July 24 and a staff brunch on Aug. 7 – and a virtual pen pal program created by Goldmeier.

She matched SUCCEED students who didn’t know each other well and introduced them via email. She then provided a set of prompts to help break the ice, but many students had no trouble connecting with a new friend.

“It’s just been awesome to watch,” she said. “I’ve been getting emails from them like, ‘Hey Rachel, we played a game together on Zoom today.’”

Additionally, the program is taking its annual summer camp online and offering spots to the public.

“Traditionally, we have this summer camp called the SUCCEED Summer Enrichment Camp, which is about 20 students,” Lidgus explained. “It’s like a mini SUCCEED, and it’s in the residence halls. It’s a week long, but we can’t do that now. So, we’ve made that our virtual camp. It’s four weeks, and we’re opening it up to the community.

“Now, it’s more of our service to the community to help get a lot of individuals with disabilities, and without disabilities, through a summer where there’s not a lot of activities. Each week will be different, focusing on one of our pillars.”

While there were some concerns initially about campus closing, SUCCEED students promptly laid them to rest.

“With individuals with disabilities, sometimes it’s easy to count them out,” Lidgus said. “When you look at how our students have transitioned from in person to online, it shows the amazing resilience in them.”

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