Full Transcript

Interview with Dr. Stuart Stofferahn & Jessi Sandberg, the Nebraska Transition College

June 29, 2020

Dr. Gwen:         Hi, friends, Welcome to my channel. My name is Dr. Gwen, and I'm a clinical psychologist who's been obsessed with empowering disabled teens and adults to live their absolute best lives. In this video, I interview Dr. Stuart Stofferahn and Jessi Sandberg from the Nebraska Transition College, which we lovingly refer to as NTC. We get into the nuts and bolts of NTC and their mission and vision of the program. We also explore the idea of interdependence and agencies, so make sure to stick around to the very end. If you do want to skip around, though, timestamps are in the description below. Alright. Let's go.

Stuart and Jessi, thank you so much for spending some time with me today. I thought we could spend some time or, at least, start off our interview with telling us about yourself and your experience. And, Stuart, maybe, you can get us started.

Dr. Stuart:        Sure, yeah. Well, boy, I don't want to take up the entire podcast telling you how I got to where I am, but just a brief background for me is I'm an educator at heart. So, I started teaching in the elementary classroom as a music educator. It's funny when you start talking about your history. I used to sing opera on stage. I can cite a little Italian, although, I try not to because I'm not exactly sure what it means. And, used in the wrong context, I might end up being married and I don't even know it. So, I taught music in the elementary school.

I was also in the military. I finished up 31 years of military service in the Air Force on December 31st, 2017. I did that in at the same time I was a teacher, so I was part-time. And then, I went into full-time military service back in 2002. So, I finished up with about 16, well, I guess, 15 years of full-time service. And, while I was doing that, I was still working in education more along the lines of studies. So, I got my master's degree and doctorate in education administration through those years, and, along the way, picked up an interest in what I can do with that degree. And, that led us to Nebraska Transition College. And, that's why kind of we're sitting right here right now.

Dr. Gwen:         Awesome. How about you, Jessi?

Jessi:                I have been a special education teacher for 18 years. Sixteen of those years were in the high school setting. And, I went into special education because I was passionate about helping students transition from high school to adult living. And, while I spent those years in education, I realized that there were, definitely, services that were lacking for our students. And so, when I met Stuart about four years ago, I believe, I was excited to hear of the concept of Nebraska Transition College, because it is what so many of our students are needing. And so, for the last two years, I have been a part of NTC.

Dr. Gwen:         I love it. I love it. And, I was joking about this, but I've been kind of fangirling your program, right, because I've been watching its development, I've been seeing it before you guys even offered classes. And, there's such a felt sense of empowerment and vision that is so awesome. Down to Stuart, you like giving up your car and feeling that out and people can see that on your blog, and I'll put the description of that below. But, it's awesome. And, I think, as a psychologist, for myself, who's just really laser-focused on transition, really figuring out that there's a chasm, it's like an abyss, when students graduate from high school from most of the times and, hopefully, quite a bit of support that wraps around them with quite a bit of intensity. We go into these really important times of our life that all of us, with or without a disability, go through, right? Who are we? What choices do we want to make? What are we going to do?

But, to have a program to be able to do that is really quite a gem. And so, this is why I'm like, "I've got to talk to NTC in an interview." Anyway. Okay. So, I'm not going to talk about NTC, but one of you should. And, maybe, one of you can describe this program fully, like what does it look like and what does it look like in a day in the life of.

Dr. Stuart:        Wow, in the day in the life of... So, NTC's, to your point, the chasm. We call it a gap. So, my initial studies for the dissertation wasn't in this field. It was initially about mitigating the effects of poverty on student achievement. And, that's where I was starting. To me, that was my passion, and still is, but it was something where it was going to just contribute to data was already out there, and because we had to know the answers to mitigating the effects of poverty on achievement. But, it was just going to contribute to that. And, quite honestly, it was kind of an easier path to get the doctorate, if we're just being completely honest. But, I knew that the research would contribute. But, then, I had a conversation with my cousin who lives in Hudson, Wisconsin. And, it was just a chance for us to reconnect after many years of just ignoring the distance and just using the distance as an excuse. And so, I took a trip up there. She has a son named, Kyle. She has two daughters as well. Kyle was born in Russia. He was adopted from Russia, and he lives with a fetal alcohol syndrome. And, for Kyle, it presents a lot like autism, especially, with regard to social relationships and difficulties initiating those and nurturing those. Kyle has a job. He has a car. He functions highly. So, if we want to use that description of high functioning. But, Kyle is not in a place where after he graduates high school that he's going to live on his own, if necessary, right?

And, typically, in our society, that's how we look at successful graduation from high school. We can go on and do other things, but typically, we are ready to live on our own right from graduating high school. But, for Kyle, there was going to be this gap. It wasn't wide, but it was deep with regard to he wasn't really ready to move on to that next step, whether it was working a full-time job, living independently, or going to a typical four-year, or three-year, or two-year, or whatever college, because he just needed some more time to develop social skills, living skills, and work-ready skills.

And, in that conversation with my cousin, in tears, she said, "I don't know what I'm going to do with Kyle when I die." So, it hit me that I'm a parent of two neurotypical children. And so, I understand the burden of what it means to be a parent, but I didn't understand that burden that Cindy was faced with in the future. And, it hit me that, "Come on, Cindy. There's got to be something for Kyle. There's got to be something out there." They started looking. And, while there are organizations doing great things, they're sort of hit and miss and there's really not a whole lot of consistency to the programming. And, typically, the programming that's out there, they work on social skills, living skills, and work-ready skills, and we're talking about non-academic programs here, because we have academic programs but we don't have the non-academic programs that focus specifically on those skills. They're, typically, really, really expensive and inaccessible to the majority of students, one of those being Kyle.

And so, I was two to three years into my dissertation work, and that's a lot of work. And, I traveled home about seven or eight hours in complete silence thinking about what it is that we could do. This was, maybe, an opportunity. As you live life, you have to watch and wait for those opportunities, and you have the choice to either take them or don't. And, this was sort of the universe reaching out to me and saying, "Hey, bonehead. Here's an opportunity. You can contribute. You can keep doing what you're doing with your current research, but you can contribute in this way, and potentially use the research to build something." And so, I threw away all of that research and I started over to try and find something for Kyle.

And, Kyle has a verified disability, but this programming is specifically for those folks who are high-functioning or have fewer needs to live independently. Because, in Nebraska, anyway, and I think this is more typical throughout the country, that the Kyles of the world might qualify for services, but funding for those services is typically limited. And so, Kyle, the Kyles of the world, while they qualify for services of support, typically, don't receive them because the money runs out before Kyle can receive that support, because, typically, there are students who have higher needs who need that support first. So, Kyle gets put on a waiting list. And, in Nebraska, the waiting list is years long and in the thousands. So, by the time Kyle is eligible or he's eligible, but by the time he receives that support, he's going to be through that window and research shows there's a window. There's a window for these students to be engaged and be part of the community. And, it's, typically, a two-year window.

So, if we don't find programming for these students to be able to fully engage themselves and immerse themselves in the community in a way that is typical for everyone, and to find that tribe to initiate friendships, to nurture to find a place, then, we miss that window, and then, the opportunities for them to be engaged after that window really taper off.

And so, that's the beginning of NTC. So, what we did is we did some research. We tried to find other programs out there. We found lots, well, not a lot but not nearly what is needed to meet the need of all of our Kyles. But, we designed NTC with that in mind and with those other programs, but with some bigger guidelines and those bigger guidelines is we need to make our programming as accessible financially. It's got to be accessible, because the needs are so great, but these parents are spending six to eight times the amount of money that it takes to raise a neurotypical child through age 18. So, by the time they give to us, they can't afford $50,000, $60,000, $70,000 a year, which is difficult. And, those organizations that are that expensive amazingly have waiting lists. So, you have parents who are mortgaging their houses, they're finding any financial means because they're desperate to find a place for their son or daughter. So, it had to be financially accessible. And, it had to be researched-based, either with evidence or the research that we're doing just to come up with solid curriculum. We had to find teachers who are highly credentialed, either in special education or psychology, or transition specialists, vocation, and rehabilitation. And, we had to bring our programming to our students.

So, one of the things that we found in our research is that most of these wonderful programs out there are putting forth some great programming, but they're finite. So, they build buildings or they move into buildings or they create programming for just that single community, so students who want to access the programming have to, either, move to the community or don't. And, that becomes just unattainable. So, what we wanted to do is design our programming so that it would be kind of turnkey for any community. And, this is where we are. As far as I have done the research, we are completely unique, in that we are designing or programming it in a way that you can pack it up into a nice little suitcase and take it into any community that there's a need. So, make it turnkey, and make our programming comprehensive and scoped, it focuses on social skills, living skills, and work-ready skills for those students who fall into that gap.

And, again, it's very specific. So, if you look at the spectrum of individuals with disabilities, we are focusing solely on those students, those graduates, who would qualify themselves as high-functioning or fewer needs. And, that's the vision, and that's what NTC is in a nutshell, and that's sort of beyond my 30-second speech. But, Jessi, I always want to pull you into that. What am I missing in that, Jessi?

Jessi:                You did a fantastic job of giving us the overall picture of NTC. Stuart, you did a great job of explaining the core skills that we're focusing on, are the social interaction, the living skills, the work-ready skills, and the different themes that all of our courses fall into, our personal wellness, community navigation, social relationships, civic responsibility, pre-vocational, vocational, and residential living, which Stuart mentioned, the apartment living experience that students can opt into.

Dr. Gwen:         That's all--Go ahead, Stuart.

Dr. Stuart:        What I'm just going to say is it's a three-year comprehensive vision. So, this is curriculum that's not one or two classes long. We're talking of the entire curriculum Is 30 classes within those six different curricular streams. Not all of those themes have the same number of classes. We focus more on the pre-vocational, vocational, and residential living and social relationships, because the design of the curriculum, we haven't designed it all, by the way. This is a vision. It takes time to do this. Vision is three years long under those curricular streams, and we lead the idea of the typical student progression, is that, by the time they're done with those three years, they will have the skills necessary to live independently in the community of their choice.

Dr. Gwen:         That is awesome. I think it's so important to be able to dial in your ideal student because, when a program is able to do that, when a program is able to say, "This is what we do and this is who we serve," and when those two things collide, magic happens, right? It always worries me when I talk to programs that say, "We'll help anyone." That worries me, because the populations that we work with are so complex, they're wonderfully complex, that when you know exactly who you can serve and serve well, that is really, I think, that's the secret sauce of any kind of program.

I think, Stuart, you spoke a lot about accessibility, which is a big deal. You're citing programs that are $50,000, $60,000, $70,000 a year. We all know of programs that can go up to $100,000, $150,000, $200,000 a year. And so, that really does... ...exclude people, I think, from being able to do this. With a population that, sometimes, just needs some more time, some really thoughtful exposure, thoughtful opportunity, good teaching and guidance and practice, because we are talking about kind of where the rubber meets the road kind of skills about life.

And that there's something so empowering, I think, about it's not the academic piece. It's all the other stuff that makes life, life. And so, that is so fantastic. Talk to me about the residential piece, because the residential piece is an optional thing. But, talk to me about what that looks like and how that gets integrated into your program.

Dr. Stuart:        Okay. Sure. I'll start here, Jessi, and then, you come in wherever. So, when we were designing this program, one of the pieces, the financial pieces, that made programming so expensive was that similar organizations doing similar work offer a residential piece from day one. And, that's wonderful, but when you do that, it drives the expense up by a factor of 10, because you have to have 24-hour supervision and support. And, of course, you immediately have rent.

What we wanted to do was, remember, the overall vision here is that we want whatever we're designing has to be able to be implemented in any community across the United States or the world, really. So, if you think about programming whatever we're designing has to be able to be taken into a little suitcase and packed up and go to any place. So, that means that we have to have the residential component wherever we go. So, for us, what we wanted to do is, instead of offering residential at the beginning, on day one, which would require that 24-hour supervision piece, we wanted to provide as much curriculum as we could possibly provide in a classroom setting up until the moment we could provide the practicum experience in an apartment.

So, for us, the three-year cycle, the first two years is devoted solely to that classroom instruction. So, it's the non-practicum piece. And then, once our students have progressed through those first two years of courses, so, about 20 classes, then, the idea, of course, this is a vision, this has not been built out yet, so the vision is that, at that point, and there will be a series of evaluations that will have to be done for each student who is ready for that next step. It's not that the students complete 20 courses, and then, they're automatically eligible for that next step. We have to make sure that they're ready. And, at that point, after that evaluation piece has taken place and they're eligible for the residential piece.

So, the residential piece is that third year. If a student progressed through full-time classes, through every quarter that we offer, the ideal would be that they would be ready for that piece after two years. But, once they've completed that piece, then, they're eligible for that residential piece. And, the residential piece, the student lives in an apartment with a roommate, pays their own rent, has a job, and practices all of those skills that they've learned for those two years prior. What that does, then, is it eliminates the need for that 24-hour support, which is a high-cost item. And then, we are able to provide support through 24-hour phone support. And, through these skills that they've learned and their roommates they're living with. And, that's that practical experience.

So, if you're living on your own, you know that if you have a problem, first of all, let's think about all of the skills that we've obtained in all of the classroom settings that we've been involved in, and what can I use as my own skillset to resolve this conflict. Build out from that. Then, you have friends, right? So, your resiliency circle is the next piece, your friends, how can you involve them in your problem-solving. And then, the third piece is our 24-hour phone support, we're family. And, that's how I live my life. I have to incorporate what I've learned, and then extend it out beyond that with my friends and family to help me.

And, that third year is a 12 to 18-month. So, there's a little bit of wiggle room for the student during that time, that practical experience, so that third year is 12 to 18 months. They're also taking more classes, and that's when we start getting into the curricular theme of being involved in our communities. So, what does that look like? You can. You can just go to work and you can go home and live life, but how full is that life? And so, part of their curricular piece during that 12 to 18 months is how do you get involved in your community. It's important to volunteer. It's important to vote, all of these civic responsibilities that become part of that.

And then, as they progress through that year, we're encouraging them to find a community of their choice, right? So, this is not a permanent place for them to live, and we do that on purpose. Remember that we're building this out, so we can take this any community that there's a need, which means, if we built buildings and we had students there, then, we've just created what's all across the United States in a finite solution. But, if we create a way that we can have flow-through apartments so these students can live there in a temporary basis, but yet, still practice, then, they move out and more students move back in. So, we've created this flow through design. And, in every community that I've seen of any particular size, they have apartments, they have students, they have teachers, they have business partners, they have all of the ingredients necessary for us to take this program into any community in need. What am I missing, Jessi?

Jessi:                You did great. What I love is all the support that we provide throughout the entire process of independent living. Obviously, the preparation is huge once they're there, providing that ongoing support. But then, as they come to the end of their 12 to 18 months, we are preparing them for what is the next step. You don't just graduate, you move out, and you're done. It's we're helping you find that location and helping you problem-solve where your next destination will be. So, I love the concept of support the entire way through. And, when they leave us, they will be successful in their future of living situations.

Dr. Stuart:        And, that's a great point, Jessi. In fact, I'm glad you brought that up, because the vision is also not to-- So, I equate this a lot of times to, we go through driver's ed, right, most of us go through driver's ed and we sit in a classroom, and we learn what to do in a car accident. And, that's great. But then, when we get into our first car accident, we freak out and we forget everything we've ever learned in driver's ed. And so, we need that support of that very moment. It's critical at that moment to have that support. And, that's NTC.

So, when they graduate, when they finish that 12 to 18 months, our vision is to, if you're a student of NTC, you're a student of NTC for life. So, you can always come back to us, and we can help you through that, those initial bumps. And, what we anticipate is much like it is for you and I. We get into that first car accident and we freak out and forget everything. And, maybe, a car accident is not the best analogy here. But, hopefully, we’re not in a lot of car accidents. But, the next time we're in a situation like that, we remember, "Okay. Now, we've moved through this," because when it comes to resiliency, we don't know if we're resilient until we need to be resilient. And so, we can practice it all day long, but until we're in this situation, now we know how we're going to react.

And, we anticipate that, after those first few bumps in the road, NTC will be that sort of thing where, "I go back to my Alma mater and it's cool. I buy a sweatshirt, but I don't need to go back there. But, I'm glad they're still there."

Dr. Gwen:         Yeah. And, this kind of idea of how experience is one of our best teachers, right, and that who we are today is really this generative effect or this cumulative effect of all the experiences that we've had and what we've done with our experiences. And, I think you're right, that analogy of the car accident is so true. I remember my first car accident, and I was freaked out. So, I think that's really accurate.

Dr. Stuart:        And, we have the ability to make it such bad-- we can make it so much worse if we don't have support there, right?

Dr. Gwen:         Yeah.

Dr. Stuart:        If you say something or we do something to make it worse. And so, we just want to make sure that we're there to help them through those initial bumps.

Dr. Gwen:         Yeah. And that life is not meant to live alone, and that we all need support, and we all need help, and we reach out to our support systems and identify who's in the best position to help us with that thing, whatever that is. That's important, too, who's in our circles of support? And, what do they look like? And, when do I know I need help? And, do I know how to ask for help? All of this great stuff. Jessi, if we could talk about the classes, actually, and what they look like. So, do you, guys, start at a certain time, especially in the first couple of years of the program? And, are all the students meeting at the same time, taking the same classes together? Talk to us a little bit about that.

Jessi:                We're just in our, I guess, this is kind of our second year of classes. We started spring a year ago. And, we had classes in the evening. Now, we have some that are in the evening, some during the day. So, it does depend on the student situation. If they have a job, whether it's a full-time job or a part-time job, they may opt to take certain classes that fit into their schedule. Now that we have this comprehensive three-year plan, that's going to have things look a little bit different, I think, from here on out starting this fall. But, yeah, we have a class size limited to 15 students. That's the maximum that we have designated for our classes, because we want to make sure that they are small, that students feel comfortable, have that community feeling, but most importantly, we want to be able to give them the best feedback, support, and strategies that they can utilize to generalize the information to all areas of their life. So, yes, I'm not sure that I answered your question there.

Dr. Gwen:         Yeah.

Dr. Stuart:        If I could, really quickly, it's important that we also explain where our classes are located. And, the other piece, too, again, remember, we want everything to be able to be packaged up and take wherever we can. So, we are in the community. So, our classes are community-based. So, remember, we don't have any buildings. I do my job anywhere, and our classes are in those locations that already have space that isn't being utilized. So, one of our classes is in a bank, another one is in a library. One of our partners is a community college, another is a typical four-year college. One of our classes in the future will be at the YMCA.

So, if you go around the community, and this is actually kind of a fun challenge for me, anywhere I go, I can point to a building and I can say, "There is a space in that building that is not being utilized, and we asked to use that space at low or no cost, because we want to keep that cost as low as possible because, ultimately, it comes down to keeping that tuition low." And, wherever we're successful, we take that to any community. So, we're at a bank. There's banks in almost every community that I know of. YMCAs of any community that's any size. Libraries, they're everywhere, and most of them have great meeting space. And community colleges, around Nebraska, there are community colleges everywhere. So, that's where our classes are located.

Dr. Gwen:         That's awesome. That's awesome. So, do you teach your students remotely as well? Stuart, if you were to teach a class and you're not necessarily physically there, how are they accessing, let's say, you as part of the lesson?

Dr. Stuart:        And, I'll start with I may teach one or two classes, but one of the classes that I will be teaching is going to be the community navigation. As you mentioned before, I took an entire month and parked my car in a garage and learn how to drive, not drive, learn how to ride the bus. And, it was very enlightening, incredibly enlightening. And so, I'll be teaching the course and I'm doing it through experience and the knowledge that I receive just by doing that. Part of my job as the executive director is to find really highly educated credentialed instructors, like Jessi, to come in and do that job, and then, get out of the way. And, I want to make sure I got the building for them, the classroom space, the money, and everything else is lined up. But then, my job is to get out of the way.

And then, teaching remotely. And, that provides a little bit more of a challenge for us, especially, today, when we started talking about having to kind of divide up our classes in person, but also, remotely. And so, I'll turn that kind of over to Jessi to kind of talk through what we've been doing there to work through that.

Dr. Gwen:         Yeah, that'd be great.

Jessi:                Yes. First and foremost, we definitely want to have our classes in-person because we know what an impact that makes to be able to do that direct instruction, have that personal connection, that social interaction. And, it's a little bit different when it's in a electronic format. But, we have successfully had some of our sessions through the electronic format, and we are definitely changing with the times, and we'll be able to offer some of those opportunities for students who are remote, who maybe aren't in our communities. So, we'll always looking to find ways to bring those students to us as well. But, first and foremost, if we can do them in-person, that's our goal.

Dr. Stuart:        Always, yeah, it is our goal.

Dr. Gwen:         Yeah. And, that just makes so much sense, when we come back to experience and practice, and how beneficial it is to even be around other people who are learning the same thing, and what experiences they bring. And how great that is. Okay. Awesome. Let's jump to funding, Stuart. You've spoken a lot about making the program accessible. How do most of your students pay for this program?

Dr. Stuart:        So, the funding right now is, really, two of a three-peg stool. We're working to get to that third peg, but it takes a little while to get there. So, the two pegs right now are donor-based. So, we've been working to build NTC for the last six years, and a big portion of that is to make sure that we communicate our message effectively. We haven't always done so. We're getting much better at that. I was never an executive director. I was going to be in education. I was going to be a superintendent of public schools. And now, I'm a web guru, I'm an accountant, I'm the Zoom professional. I do marketing. I would have never, but now, I'm doing all of those things. And, a bigger one is the development and nurturing those donors, and making sure that we're communicating the message in a way that they understand how effectively their dollars are being put to use.

And, one of those, most recently, we're sort of trying to pivot to that making sure that we can keep our students engaged and connected to quickly pivot to an online resource, which we did through what we call NTC Connections. And, that was very quickly funded by a donor. And, it was a six-week course that we designed, Jessi designed, to implement completely online to keep our students connected while we kind of pivot to work. Because, we had to cancel our Spring Quarter classes, because it was just too quick to pivot for our students. I think it was too quick for anyone, but especially our students. And so, we quickly pivoted through our donors to be able to offer a course for free to our students to keep them engaged and connected. So, our donors are our number one contributor to our funding at this point.

Our second one is our tuition payments. And, our tuition is $289 per class per quarter. And, if our students take every one of our classes to include the 12 to 18-month practicum, living in an apartment, paying rent, our students are still under $13,000 for three years instruction and 12 to 18 months of rent. And now, that being said, of course, eventually, right now, just their tuition alone pays about 30% of our operating costs, if we just use that alone. So, we can't survive just on tuition. And, we knew that going in, right, because to make programming like this accessible, it costs a lot of money. It costs a lot of money to do, but we wanted to make sure we didn't pass that completely on to the students. So, that's why our donors right now are so vitally important to making sure this program gets to that place where it's up and running.

But, eventually, with our design, and that's what makes this so magical, is that when we are at capacity, so if we're at those 15 students per class, because we're not there yet, because it takes a long time to build up that student pace, we can, then, eventually flip that. So, instead of having 70% of our funding coming from donors and, eventually, the third peg is grants. But, we can't really get the grants right now because we would need more evidence. We would need more data that our program is being successful. But, eventually, we can flip that. So, if we start moving into other communities and start offering our programming to more students, there's a tipping point. Programming for our students is paid for a certain enrollment per class. Well, once we get that maximum enrollment, you can start seeing our programming, just our low tuition rate for our students, we'll start paying for about 70% of our programming, instead of 30%.

Now, we'll always need donor. We'll always need to have a donor base that will be required to continue to offer the programming at an affordable rate, but it'll be wonderful once we get to that place where the donor support is not at that 70% level. We will start getting to a more sustainable rate for donor support. And then, you start adding in the grants. And, that's where that third peg comes into play.

Dr. Gwen:         And, how do most students find you, guys?

Dr. Stuart:        I'm the Marketing and Publicity Director. Hi, how are you doing?

Dr. Gwen:         Hi, nice to meet you.

Dr. Stuart:        Dr. Stuart Stofferahn. I'll put that hat on now. And, web guru.

Dr. Gwen:         Yes, yes.

Dr. Stuart:        So, right now, it's through opportunities like this, opportunities like this to get the word out. It's web-based. It's Facebook. It's emails building up our newsletter list to make sure that our donors and supporters stay involved and continue to receive updates as we go. But, it's homegrown. This is grassroots. And then, wonderfully enough, these small celebrations that are a big deal to me. Just not too long ago, we received our 20th student. And, that's a big deal for us. We've got now 20 students who have been through our application process. Now, we've just received Another application that was a current student recommended. So, we've got a current student who recommended our programming to a friend.

And so, you start receiving that, and so, you start to see that momentum build a little bit, and the word get out there, that we're staying through our vision. And, that is we have high quality, research-based, and some evidence-based curriculum. We've got amazing instructors who are highly credentialed and dedicated folks. We've got a vision to make sure that we keep our programming at an affordable rate. And so, when you stay true to that vision and ideal, it takes a tremendous amount of fortitude and perseverance, and dedication from staff to volunteer their time until we get to a place where we can get that programming flying through the roofs. So, I don't want to ramble. I'll keep going on and on and on. Jessi, am I missing anything?

Jessi:                I think you covered it very well.

Dr. Stuart:        Okay. Okay.

Dr. Gwen:         So, Jessi, I love this because you, guys, are such a team, and Stuart, often, is saying, "Look, I'm relying on the experts to do the curriculum planning and execution." And, this is why you're here, because you are that curriculum expert, and you've been doing this for so long. What would you say is kind of the ideal student for the program, someone who really thrives in your program? Can you describe what they would look like?

Jessi:                Someone who really thrives in our program, first and foremost, has to be willing to accept a little bit of change and challenge. That's one of the first things that I talk to them about when we are starting our classes, is we are going to be doing some things that are uncomfortable, might be a little different from the way you've done it before, but that's how we grow. So, being willing to accept, to kind of take some time and reflect. Work on that self-awareness and be willing to work through these struggles together. That's something I know, Gwen, you had mentioned the support system. And, we often talk about finding your advocate, who is someone that can help advocate for you and help you through situations? So, who's your person? So, somebody who's willing to kind of step outside their box because it's a big change to jump from, maybe, their current situation, or if they just graduated from high school to try to make that transition to adult living, there's a lot of change there. So, being willing to work through those changes is a first component.

We have students, variety of age ranges. So, generally speaking, I would say kind of our current population is kind of in that 18 to 25-year range, but there is no upper limit. We have students that are older than that, and are more than welcome to come and join us. Many of these students really do have that desire and the intention to be able to move out on their own and live independently and interdependently. So, this is a program that's for those students that have those goals and desires, and want to really work hard and get to their definition of success.

Dr. Stuart:        And, there are more specific eligibility requirements on the website that students can go and check out. We start getting into the nuts and bolts of the two, they have to have a verified disability, and there are other eligibility considerations that we have out there for students to kind of take a peek at. We also have a narrative of what a student scenario might look like. Her name is Janet. And, we made up the name, but it's out on our website. And, we tell a story of a student. So, Janet just graduated from high school and it kind of gives a little narrative of what Janet has done and what she's looking forward to, and what she's trying to find. And, it's one thing to have a list of eligibility requirements, and it's another to kind of tell a story in a narrative, so kind of students can kind of see if this is a program for them.

And, the other piece of that is, when I was doing my research for my dissertation, I was all into quantitative research, and that's all numbers. And, numbers are wonderful. And, I was 31 years in the military, so I loved structure, right? Numbers, you can't lie with numbers. One plus one is two, and you can't get around that. And so, if my research is going to be quantitative, and then, it turned quickly into qualitative. And, for those not familiar with qualitative, it's all about finding themes and getting used to the grey area and having conversations and not really being sure, and all of that turned my skin inside-out as I started thinking about this.

But, man, did I love working in the grey area, and that's what helps NTC kind of thrive. And, it even comes into consideration with our eligibility requirements. So, yes, this is what we designed, and this is what we're about, but a lot of what you'll read through is the ability for us to have those conversations. Because, eligibility requirements state these things, but there's always questions. And, for us, it's all about having a deeper conversation with students who think, or may not think, this might not be for them, but it might through a conversation. So, we always just encourage students, if they have any questions, prospective students, or parents, or support systems to reach out if they have any questions as to whether or not this would be appropriate for them.

Dr. Gwen:         Yeah. And, that's awesome, this grey area. And, for many of us, there have been an intervention. We're all about behavioral outcomes and things like this and measurement, right? And then, we get to where the rubber is meeting the road, and wow, there is a lot of grey. And, what it sounds like, and what I've seen, I think, is people who can meet the grey areas are the people who are attentive and thoughtful and committed to how dynamic this is. And, that you're able to pivot where you need to pivot, right? And, I think that's very evident, not only in--good job webmaster, by the way, in your website.

Dr. Stuart:        Well, now, let me condition that a little bit. I get up there and I maintain it, but we've got someone. Her name is Anne Woodford, I need to make sure that I say that name. She's amazing, and I can dial her up at any moment and say, "Anne, I just screwed up the website again. Can you help me?" And then, she would immediately go out there and do that.

Dr. Gwen:         Nice. When you break it, Stuart –

Dr. Stuart:        I would ruin my own mind, right?

Dr. Gwen:         Right. So, when you break it, she can fix it, in other words?

Dr. Stuart:        Yes, yes.

Dr. Gwen:         Yes. But, your enthusiasm is what is really evident. So, I think that's so great. Maybe, I'll just fast forward. I'm going to throw this one at Jessi. I'm going to fast forward you a little bit, Jessi. And, it's a little bit early only because you, guys, are just kind of this really beautiful bootstrapping emergent program who's really meeting needs. What do you imagine to be the picture of a graduate? What would a graduate of NTC look like? I know that it's a three-year program. We just talked about grey area, right? So, we kind of know, it might be a little longer, a little shorter than three years. It's really dependent upon the student, but what would you imagine to be the picture of a graduate of NTC?

Jessi:                And, you're exactly right, every student is different. So, I would say my picture of a graduate of NTC is that they have achieved the goals they have set forth at the beginning when they started NTC. So, if their goal was to go through our three-year program and complete the residential living component and be able to live in an apartment by themselves or with a roommate, and that's what they are doing, that is a successful graduate. If a student decides that they want to take some courses and they want to work a part-time job, live at home, whatever it is that they have set their goal for, then, they are a successful graduate as well. So, I think it depends upon the students, obviously. If they're going for our three-year program, we'd love to see them living interdependently out in the community.

Dr. Stuart:        That's a great point, Jessi. It is so highly individualized. Every student who comes to us, the first thing we talk about is, "What are your goals? What is it that you want to accomplish?" And, what we can do is we've got the programming we think and the vision to help them accomplish whatever those goals are to completion, up to and including living on your own in an apartment, working a job, and doing whatever it is that you want to do, finding your niche just like all of us do in the community, being paid a wage that is acceptable for your ability, to live independently, whatever that looks like. And, there's that gray area.

You've got a lot about the three-year program. And, the program is designed in a way that, if students wanted to take a full-time course load, for us that's three courses a quarter, straight through. And, to include our summer flex quarter, which is a different story, but if you include all of that and they took every course that we offer, they could progress through that in three years. That's a full-time student, and we anticipate that a lot of our students are going to be the part-time students. And, they may not want to take any pre-vocational, vocational school or courses that we offer. They've got a job. They're cool there. I don't need any of that. What I really want to focus on is that give me some more of that community navigation stuff, or social relationships, or residential living, that stuff I really need to focus on. And, that's what Jessi made so clear, is that that's going to be up to the student.

So, we offer our courses, and it's on a set schedule. Every quarter, we offer these classes, and they'll come around again beginning of the next year. And, it's just the way any typical college really does in their catalog. And so, if we don't have the course that they want right now, they just know that, in a year, it's going to circulate around again. So, that's kind of the design, is full and part-time.

Dr. Gwen:         This word, which I think we all understand, but maybe, it would be helpful for others to understand, is this idea of interdependent. I think, a lot of times, we talk a lot about independence, when the reality is there is quite a phase of interdependence. And, we all are interdependent on others, even. So, maybe, I don't know, Jessi, if you want to pick up this thread, but to you, if you would define interdependence for us, what would that be?

Jessi:                I would say that's a great question. My definition, if I were to be talking to a student right now, it would be just that give-and-take relationship where you are working with another individual for whatever best needs for each other. So, I give examples in my classes, where students, maybe, you're faced with a really important decision. So, whether it's buying a new car or trying to find a new apartment, or if you're deciding to take some college classes at the local university. Maybe, those are some decisions you want to talk through with someone, that is an interdependent decision that you may want to just kind of discuss, throw around, get some pros and cons, and that interdependence is that other person may be assisting you to make sure that your best interests are being met. And, that's an advocate that someone who 100% has your best interests at heart.

Dr. Stuart:        And then, I start getting into the nuts and bolts kind of the administrative role of what interdependence means to me. And, that comes down to, and I use this example, I don't know if it's the best example, but if I want a pork chop, I don't have a farm. I rely on farmers. Maybe, a better example is a loaf of bread. I can make it, but I can also buy it. And so, it's those organizations in town that we rely on. I am not completely independent. You see reality shows that, I think, one is called Alone, where they just drop you off with a knife and four matches and say, "Go live in the wilderness. And, we'll come get you whenever you need to be shipped out of here." And, you may survive for a day. You may survive for two months. You may survive a lifetime. But, most of us are not well equipped for that. And so, we are interdependent, we are dependent upon other organizations in the community to help us not just survive but thrive.

And so, the interdependence piece is not just grocery stores. It's those organizations that offer us the ability to thrive. And, we were talking before about civic engagement. What does that mean, and how does that contribute to our interdependence? In fact, when we were coming up with our mission statement, right now it's to empower individuals with autism and other disabilities to learn, work, and live within our communities. Initially, it was much longer than that and included the word, "independence." But, it started with interdependence, and we went back and forth. Are we really truly independent? Well, we're really not. But, nobody understands what interdependence is. So, then, we just got rid of both of them, because it was just easier. But, it's a great topic to discuss in that none of us is truly independent. And, Jessi spoke to the relational. And then, you have just the nuts and bolts pieces of survivability with regard to those organizations that help us thrive emotionally and physically.

Dr. Gwen:         Yeah. And, there's something really strong that I get from both of you, which is a sense of respecting the agency of your students, that they're the agents of their own life, and that you believe that they're competent and engaged in their own life. And, when you meet someone there, I think that's how you dance this dance, because what I find a lot of times is I have clients who are desperate to be more independent, just desperate but not ready yet in some areas. And so, how do you provide support or consult or financial support, whatever that might be, how do you do that while not disempowering somebody? How do you do that and continue to empower them and give them the support, hopefully, helping them build their own skills to get to where they want to go? But, it's very clear to me that you, guys, come back to the sense of someone's agency. The picture of the graduate is, did they meet the goals that they set for themselves? Not that that goals can't, goals change, but that they're fully engaged in the process of setting their own goals and being agents in their own life.

And, that, I think, is such an empowering and a great place to be, because I think when some of my clients come from systems where they're like, "Well, you can't do this and you can't do that, so let me give you support here, and let me do this for you, and da-da-da." And, it comes from good places, and the intent is always very good. But, they get now to this part of their life and they go, "Uh-oh. I don't know how I'm going to get from here to there."

Dr. Stuart:        Right. Yeah. Well, you hear a lot of times and a lot of our students come to us and they hear, "No, you can't, and there isn't." All they hear is, "No, you can't, and there isn't." So, I say that part of our vision is to turn that around and say, "Yes, you can and there is." Turn it around. And how do we do that? And, for us, one of the first things I do when I'm talking to a prospective student, or parent, or guardian, I'll say, "Well, what's your niche? What’s your thing? What is it that you love to do if you have free time?" And, everyone always has an answer. There's something. And then, what we want to do is build upon that conversation. So, let's just start there, and I guarantee you. And, I know I'm an idealist, and I live in this ideal world where everything is rainbows, teddy bears, and butterflies. But, I believe that that niche has its place in a community somewhere, it's got to, and there's no doubt in my mind that there's a place for it. One of our students, his name is Jake. And, if you went to our website, you can see Jake's comics.

Dr. Gwen:         His comics, yeah.

Dr. Stuart:        Yeah, well, he started with that exact same conversation, "Jake, what's your niche?" "Well, I love to draw comics." "Oh, my goodness. Jake, let's see a few of these." And, I told Jake. I said, "You know, Jake, could you imagine submitting your comic to a newspaper somewhere?" "Well, what do you mean?" "Well, I certainly know people get paid for that." "People get paid for that?" And, I say, "Yeah, people make a lot of money doing that, and they're doing something they love." And, finally, it dawned on them at that very moment, "I don't have to do something I don't want to do."

We all have to, at some point in our life, if you want to be an air traffic controller, you don't start off in the in the control tower. A lot of times, you start by carrying luggage. It's not necessarily that I wanted to do that, but I know it's a step in that direction. And, that's a conversation we have with every one of our students, how do we find where that niche fits, build upon it, and then, find out how we can make that an employable skill. Back to Jessi, when it comes to supporting students, maybe, I know that that's your niche, too, so I don't want to take up all the time.

Jessi:                No. You're good, you're good. As far as the support goes, obviously, we're providing them with direct instruction, but the true learning occurs after that. It's that guided practice. It's the going through the real-life scenarios. What I absolutely love in all of the classes is students always provide those natural scenarios. They'll say, "Well, wait a minute. What about this?" And then, it's a perfect natural teaching opportunity that we can discuss. "Okay. Well, let's see. This happened when you were at work. Okay. What could you have done differently? How could we do that and do it a little bit differently next time?" And, it's great because the students collaborate with each other. And, that is my favorite part of it, is the classroom discussions, the collaboration.

And, like I said, they do such an incredible job. It is natural that the real-life scenarios pop up. I have some planned already in my pocket, but they tend to come up with them. And so, we focus on what's happening in your world. What has happened to you, or what could happen that we want to plan ahead for?

Dr. Gwen:         So, meeting them where they are, and being attentive. I think that's exactly why you can pivot when you do, is because you have attentive, engaged people in that place of supportive teaching, versus, "No, I've got an agenda. This is the class. So, save your questions to the end, because we got to get through my PowerPoint presentation," or whatever that is. And, because you, guys, have such a strong mission and vision, you know what you're about what, you know you're trying to do here. And so, it allows for you some latitude to meet them where they are, because ultimately, it's just content. You know what your process is already. You know what kind of process you're engaging. The content is like, "Give it to me. Give me the stuff that's pertinent or salient to you at this time."

I know we could probably do a whole interview just on interdependence, because I find it to be a fascinating topic. And, I find it to be something I think about a lot when I'm supporting students and their families and adults and their support systems and how we really stay solely empowering of others, whether that's the student or even their family. Because, I think, sometimes, that's even the challenge, right, which is how do we help families also transition to this idea of letting go of their adult children, and how hard that is. And what I see is when they can trust the system or the program, that's when they can start to let go of needing to be involved, because parents want for their adult children to be happy and successful. We're all aligned, really, and all the same goals, really. And so, to be able to understand and have a felt sense of a program is so important, so that, also, there can be space there as well for a student to explore.

Okay. I always end my interviews this way, because I always find it to be so fascinating, how people answer this question.

Dr. Gwen:         But, Jessi, we'll start with--

Dr. Stuart:        What's my spirit animal?

Dr. Gwen:         Yes. What is your spirit animal, Stuart? Out of curiosity, what is it?

Dr. Stuart:        Me? Never mind. I didn't mean it.

Dr. Gwen:         I take it back. I don't want to tell.

Dr. Stuart:        I would have to say it has to be a Golden Retriever. That's an easy one for me because I've always owned Golden Retrievers. So, kind of laid-back, easygoing, still personality, a little feisty, a little mischievous, can bark when I need to. But, for the most time, you won't even know I'm there. I'm going to be at your side, become thick or thin until the day I die. That's me. That's where I am. That's where I'm going to be, but just look at me and pet me and call me a good boy.

Dr. Gwen:         Optimistic. Golden retrievers are so optimistic. I always feel like they have a great sense of optimism, which is very clear for you. I love it. Jessi, after this interview, we'll have to Photoshop Stuart in some kind of Golden Retriever. We should get one of your students to do that, because I'm sure one of your students would be able to draw Stuart as a Golden Retriever.

Jessi:                Oh, yes.

Dr. Gwen:         Oh, yeah. You know.

Dr. Stuart:        I'll make a good-looking dog.

Dr. Gwen:         That's it. Okay. So, Jessi, if you could only choose one skill to foster or empower in your students, what would it be and why?

Jessi:                And, that is a hard one. Stuart and I were actually talking about this because I have a difficult time deciding on just one because I feel like they interact so well together, so many things. Goodness, if I had to choose, I think I would say that one of my top skills that I think are so important for all of our students is communication. I think that's a huge one that goes into all areas, because it filters into the social relationships into work, into school, into advocating. It's hard for me to separate that from all the other incredible skills out there, but I know communication is such a huge piece for being able to navigate and be successful in the community.

Dr. Gwen:         Stuart?

Dr. Stuart:        Can I add to that?

Dr. Gwen:         Mm-hmm.

Dr. Stuart:        And, adding to Jessi's is-- people are in double PhDs in communication and still are terrible at it. And so, part of that piece is the piece of communication that makes us still human. And, that is the resiliency. Well, the resiliency is built into that, but the compassion, the empathy, the sympathy. And, ultimately, I think Jessi and I were talking this before as far as resiliency goes, resiliency is another umbrella ability. But, without the communication piece, which is an umbrella for the compassion and the empathy and those components that make us humans, and to be able to initiate and nurture friendships, that communication piece, and to have that compassion and those feelings of empathy that strengthen those bonds for students who so desperately want. I would say without hesitation that when our students come to us, the first thing they say is they want friends. They want to meet in a friendship circle.

Desperate for friendship but unable to be able to initiate friendships is a tragedy. It's an absolute tragedy for our existence as a human being to not have the skillset. And, it's not that they don't have the skillset. It's about uncovering the skillset that will help them navigate that. To me, I can walk away happy, I can die a happy man if we can help our students navigate that. If that was our only job, is to navigate that pathway.

Dr. Gwen:         Yeah. And, how important those things are, because it is what gives your life a sense of joy and fulfillment, are the people that we're with and that we get to spend time with. So, how do people get in touch with your lovely program? If I need to talk to someone over at NTC, what would they do?

Dr. Stuart:        Well, there's three different ways. First of all, you can reach out via email. It's really easy, [email protected]. You can certainly reach out to me directly. But, that email comes straight to me, and it's easy to remember, [email protected]. The other one is go to our website, nebraskatransitioncollege.org, all one word. And, there's tons and tons of information out there, including frequently asked questions. And so, if you are curious about whether this programming is for you, there's a section just for you. It's entitled that, is just Programming for Me? And then, they can call us directly. Our Google Voice is 402-413-5627. And, they can reach out directly to us, and we're happy to answer any questions.

Dr. Gwen:         And, I'll put all of that information in the description. So, I'll make sure to do that as well. Before we end, do you see any potential? And, I love this idea of this turnkey kind of put it in your pocket suitcase program, which I love. Do you see any options for people who may not live in Nebraska?

Dr. Stuart:        In fact, as soon as I stopped talking about how to get ahold of us, I want you to include that.

Dr. Gwen:         Yeah, I'll include that. I'll include that.

Dr. Stuart:        So, the vision, of course, is to be able to take our programming wherever a need exists. And, for us, what that means is, if people are listening to this and they live in Nevada or California or Sweden, I want to encourage them to avoid saying to themselves, "Well, this isn't Nebraska, I can't do anything," and instead, turn to this, "If there is a need in my community, we can get their programming here." And so, all you have to do is give us a call, reach out to us, so we can start that conversation. And, for us, to show a need in the community, a prospective student just needs to apply. And, our application is on our website. It's free of charge. It takes a little time to complete, but once we see a geographic area of need, so within a 30-, 40-mile radius, if we start receiving five, six applications from that area, all we do, then, is we reach out, we start doing research in that community, and say, "Hey, do we have any teachers there? Do we have any businesses who would be willing to support a classroom? Do we have someone who can help coordinate activities there?" And, all of a sudden, we have the Nebraska Transition College in Sweden. And, I will go there. I will go to Sweden, myself.

Dr. Gwen:         Because you're dedicated.

Dr. Stuart:        And get that programming up and going. Oslo, Norway, I can go there, too. Anywhere, its beautiful, I am happy to go set up programming. But, in all seriousness, it's really that easy, just to start the conversation. And, we're already ready for the next step because this is a vision, this is where we start getting optimistic, right? We've already purchased the website, nationaltransitioncollege.org.

Dr. Gwen:         Love it.

Dr. Stuart:        That way, we don't have to change our initials.

Dr. Gwen:         That's so smart, and it's really being very insightful about what's needed, which is a nuts and bolts practical program that prepares adults for living their life in a way that they want to. It's really filling in that gap. There is a huge need for this.

And so, I am so grateful to both of you for being willing to spend your time with me and talking about this program, and for you being open to having people contact you. And, I really hope that that happens, because I think that, I can tell you right now, here in California, there isn't a program really quite like this. And, I'd love to see that. So, you better watch what you wish for, Stuart, because we'll see what happens. Anyway. So, thank you.

Dr. Stuart:        We're all set. We're ready to go.

Dr. Gwen:         Awesome.

Dr. Stuart:        Thank you for this, Gwen. It's awesome to be part of this.

Jessi:                Thank you.

Dr. Gwen:         Thank you.

Dr. Stuart:        It is so nice to have you part of NTC as well.

Dr. Gwen:         Thank you. Yes, any time. Please, reach out. I'm happy. I love just collaborating and talking about it. I love it. So, reach out to me anytime. Thank you, guys, so much.

Dr. Stuart:        Thank you.

Dr. Gwen:         Thank you so much for spending your time and attention here. I hope this interview with Stuart and Jessi helped bring some insight or transformed your thinking in a meaningful way. Contact information for the Nebraska Transition College is in the description below, where you'll also find a link for the transcript of this entire interview. If you got any value from this interview, please, hit that Like button and subscribe to this channel, where my goal is to empower you with reliable information that can transform thinking to practical action. See you in the next video and thanks for watching.


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