Panther LIFE students reach beyond their grasp

First-of-its-kind program offers hope to students with intellectual disabilities

In many ways, Carolina Puig’s freshman year at FIU is a typical one: new friends, new school, new adventures. Carolina, however, is not a typical FIU student. While her red book bag is filled with college textbooks, Carolina, 19, reads at a fifth grade level.

At birth, she was diagnosed with an intellectual disability and, until now, going to college did not seem possible.

Now, Carolina and seven other students with intellectual disabilities are attending FIU classes through a first-of-its-kind program in South Florida called Project Panther LIFE (Learning is for Everyone). In partnership with Miami-Dade County Public Schools and Parent to Parent of Miami, Inc., FIU has invited these students to audit classes and experience college in ways many previously thought was out of reach.

Intellectual disability is a term used when a person has certain limitations in mental functioning and cognitive and social skills. It is legally defined as someone with an IQ under 70.

“We hope to develop these students into responsible and independent individuals who can go into the world, take care of themselves and give back to our community,” said Diana Valle-Riestra, an assistant professor of special education at FIU’s College of Education and head of Project Panther LIFE. “This is an incredible opportunity for all of us to learn from this population and truly explore their potential. I have no doubt that we will learn from them as much as they will learn from us.”

About 3,000 students with intellectual disabilities attend public schools in Miami-Dade County. Many of them remain in the school system until age 22 thanks to special federal funding.

“FIU will provide these students the opportunity to develop academically and socially far beyond what I believe they have been exposed to in some high school programs for students in this age group, where many activities are still classroom-based,” said Jill Brookner, instructional supervisor in M-DCPS’s Division of Special Education.

In its first year, Panther LIFE has brought together several FIU departments to ensure that the students gain the skills necessary to turn them into independent and productive adults. “They are probably some of the most enthusiastic Panthers you will ever see,” said Rosa Jones, vice president for student affairs at FIU. “And for our own students, this is an opportunity to be around people who are not the same as they are.”

As part of the partnership, Miami-Dade County Public Schools provides a full time special education teacher and an assistant to support and monitor the students’ progress. But after they check in with their teacher each day, Panther LIFE students head to class and join other FIU freshmen making their way through their first year of college.

This semester, Panther LIFE students are taking Freshman Experience—a required course for all incoming freshmen. Panther LIFE students are required to follow the syllabus and submit the same assignments. The only difference: they are not graded.

In addition, 16 FIU students have been hired to serve as social and academic mentors to Panther LIFE students thanks to a $15,000 grant awarded from the Florida Consortium on Postsecondary Education and Intellectual Disabilities to the College of Education. The mentors meet with Panther LIFE students two to three times a week for an hour. The academic mentors go over course assignments with them. Their social coaches spend the hour helping them explore and access university life. One Panther LIFE student, for example, wants to join the gardening club. For added support, each student has been assigned to a faculty member.

Parent to Parent of Miami will offer workshops to parents of Panther LIFE students so they can help their children transition into university life and adulthood.

“I get emotional that things have worked out so well for her at FIU,” Vivian Puig said. “Sometimes it’s hard for other people to accept kids who are different. She will come out of this a better person and actually be part of society.”

In just a month, the changes are already evident.

“We’re already  seeing what’s going on socially with these students and how they are jumping leaps and bounds from what we saw before,” Brookner, of the school district, said. “People are not what they look like on the outside. You have to see the gifts that the individual has.”

For Carolina, this program is allowing her to live the kind of life she’s always dreamed of: “I’m not stuck in one room. No one tells me what to do. I can make my own decisions.”

Media Contact:  Jean-Paul Renaud at 305-348-2716.

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