Disability Resource Center’s innovative program helping students, alumni with career planning

When students with disabilities graduate from college, they are often not prepared for making the transition to the workplace. Myths, stereotypes and misconceptions stand in their way when they look for jobs.

In October, the national unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 16.5 percent, compared with 9.2 percent for people without a disability, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The FIU Disability Resource Center, in partnership with FIU Career Services, is addressing this challenge and equipping FIU students and alumni with disabilities with the skills they need to find jobs through the Johnson Scholarship Foundation Career Services Initiative (JSFCSI). It is one of the few programs of its kind in the nation.

In 2005, FIU received a three-year, $300,000 grant from the Johnson Scholarship Foundation to expand university services for students and alumni with disabilities.  The university re-launched and took over management of the program in June, hiring new staff and restructuring the program’s priorities.

“The original program focused on providing job placement for students and alumni with disabilities,” explained Saran Stewart, JSFCSI program coordinator. “But with this challenging economy, we’ve shifted our emphasis to career planning and development.”

Participating FIU students and alumni attend interactive workshops on topics including resume and cover letter writing, practice interview sessions, business etiquette, and when and how to disclose a disability to an employer. They also benefit from networking opportunities, priority participation in career fairs, and invitations to special events.

Jorge Pedraza, an FIU senior and former U.S. Army paratrooper who served in Iraq with the elite 82nd Airborne Division, credits the program with helping him remain focused. The 28-year-old student suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It was his ADHD that prompted him to visit FIU’s Disability Resource Center.

A high school drop-out who had gone back to school to earn his high school diploma prior to entering the military, Pedraza enrolled at Tallahassee Community College (TCC) after an honorable discharge from the Army. While at TCC he was diagnosed with ADHD. His learning experience improved dramatically with the diagnosis and he went from being a ‘C’ student to an ‘A’ student.

FIU’s center, through the Johnson Scholarship Career Services Initiative, is now coordinating an internship for Pedraza at Miami International Airport and working on a post-graduation summer internship for him.

“I was completely clueless before I met with the program’s staff,” Pedraza said. “It’s nice to talk to kind people who understand the complexities of the issues you’re facing. They helped me to define my career goals and take concrete steps to meet them.”

That feeling of empowerment has spilled over into other aspects of the senior’s life. Recently, he created a student organization called LEAD — Leaders Educating and Advocating on behalf of Disabilities. As he closes in on a graduation date of Spring 2010 and contemplates his life post-FIU, Pedraza said his options have grown dramatically. Now his life is about focusing on what he can do rather than what he can’t do.

For more on Pedraza’s journey, check out the video below.

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