EAGLES Alumni Spread Their Wings and Fly

Eagles Alumni Spread Their Wings and Fly
Kelley Young

Auburn University’s Education to Accomplish Growth in Life Experiences for Success (EAGLES) is a program designed to give students with intellectual disabilities the independent living skills they need to navigate the college experience through graduation and beyond.

So how do EAGLES retain those skills after graduation?

“Our office maintains a lasting connection with our EAGLES alumni after they graduate,” said Betty Patten, the Jay and Susie Gogue Endowed Director of the EAGLES program and an assistant clinical professor in the College of Education. “We are always thrilled to receive updates about their life journeys, but we also like to collect outcome data to better guide our future offerings in the EAGLES program so we can help our graduates be successful post-program.”

The EAGLES program, part of the Department of Special Education, Rehabilitation, and Counseling, is designed to focus on academic enrichment, personal and social skills, independent living, health and wellness enhancement and integrated work experiences. With two-year and four-year non-degree certificate options, the program’s students are immersed in all aspects of campus life, living in dorms, eating in dining halls, taking Auburn classes and attending sporting events.

Some of their activities include cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping and chores such as taking out the trash. As seniors, they learn about planning for life after college and navigating the community to prepare for the transition into their adult lives. Guest speakers who work in human resources visit to talk about what employers want, and program staff teach the students about disability empowerment, emphasizing the importance of self-advocacy and self-determination skills to navigate issues where they might need support.

“In the EAGLES program, we focus extensively on independent living skills. This includes practical everyday tasks like cooking, cleaning, medical autonomy and money management,” Patten said. “Our goal is to equip the EAGLES with the necessary skills to live independently and confidently manage their day-to-day life after graduation, and our WINGS play a vital role in that process.”

Peer mentors known as Warmhearted Individual Nurturing Great Success (WINGS) help EAGLES students navigate campus life and grow their independence. Both groups have access to a mobile app called Equip that has the EAGLES’ personalized schedules, reminders for daily tasks, checklists, educational resources and a directory. The staff uses an online platform for managing what EAGLES and WINGS see in the app and help to manage their schedules.

Patten says the app is extremely helpful to everyone who is involved with the program, including program staff.

“The app provides a comprehensive understanding of the EAGLES’ progress, allowing for a real-time view of the events offered to all EAGLES and WINGS, sign-up features, reminders and support,” she said. “This three-way perspective ensures the program is both effective and responsive to individual needs.”

Aside from the Equip app and WINGS program, there are many other resources for independent living available to the EAGLES, including courses on financial literacy, time management, cooking classes and social skills development. The program also has robust work training that goes beyond campus jobs and into the community with organizations that include Opelika High School, The Collegiate Hotel, East Alabama Health and the Pants Store.

All EAGLES students complete job training, with options for industry-recognized credentials in the Advanced Program that include Southeastern Onsite OSHA training, which equips students with vital safety and operational skills. While this means EAGLES are prepared for a wide range of jobs, the program does try to match them to employers based on their interests, strengths and references while also considering their needs.

One of the main goals of the program is to ensure EAGLES can grow from their campus employment and work training to maintain their own jobs after graduating.
“We strive to match our EAGLES’ interests with suitable on-campus or off-campus job opportunities,” Patten said. “For instance, sports enthusiasts often have the chance to work with Auburn Athletics, aligning their passion with practical job experience. This approach not only enhances job satisfaction but also fosters a deeper engagement in their roles.”

One of the main goals of the program is to ensure EAGLES can grow from their campus employment and work training to maintain their own jobs after graduating. They begin exploring job opportunities before graduation, and EAGLES staff provide guidance and support in job placement, promoting a smooth transition from campus to the workforce through the S.O.A.R. planning process (Supports and Opportunities Accessible in the Real world) and during the “Becoming an EAGLES Alumni” course offered in the last semester before graduation.

It’s clear these programs are paying off because EAGLES alumni have had a great deal of success in securing fulfilling jobs. Sean Patrick, a 2021 graduate, lives in Canton, Georgia, and works at Publix. Bradley and Anna, both graduates of the advanced program in 2022, hold jobs at Bitty & Beau’s Coffee in downtown Auburn and are living in the Auburn community. Their classmate Josh works full-time at the Auburn University Hotel and Dixon Conference Center, and Quin, who graduated last year, works part-time at Dick’s Sporting Goods. Both Josh and Quin also live independently in Auburn.

Elizabeth is a 2023 graduate of the advanced program who currently works part-time at Auburn Early Education Center as an afterschool teacher, where she helps children with homework and is a buddy to a child with special needs. She lives independently in her own apartment and remains in touch with Madelyn, one of the WINGS, and several EAGLES, including Grace and Rosa. Since graduating, she has learned that keeping the same daily schedule helps her stay on track.

“I have a schedule I stick with every day,” she said. “I usually eat breakfast at my apartment, then I go work out in the workout room in my building. Work is from 2 to 5:30 p.m. I am living in an apartment by myself and cooking frozen meals like ravioli and mac n’ cheese in my microwave.”

Another EAGLES grad who is living independently is Kyle, who graduated from the advanced program in 2023. He worked for Auburn Athletics as a student and now works at Staks Pancake Kitchen in downtown Auburn. He is glad to have learned money management and time management in the EAGLES program, so he doesn’t forget the plans he’s made.

“When I ask my friends to hang out, I put it on my white board,” he said.

After graduation, EAGLES staff members do an official check-in with each alumnus at the 30-, 60- and 90-day marks after graduation and then again at six and 12 months. But the staff is more than happy to hear updates from their graduates in between or after those points.

“Learning about our graduates thriving independently and embracing new job opportunities is incredibly fulfilling and a testament to the success of our program,” Patten said.