Cheers and Tears at Ceremony for Special Students

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EAST STROUDSBURG UNIVERSITY-- With nervous parents pinning corsages, and smiling students hugging friends, Saturday afternoon's ceremony at the East Stroudsburg University's Abeleoff Center looked just like a college graduation.

It was and it wasn't.

The ceremony celebrated six students with Down Syndrome who are the first group to complete a three-year program designed to help them thrive in the "real world." The Career and Independent Living and Learning Studies program works closely with ESU's Special Education and Rehabilitation program, and ESU students serve as mentors for the CILLS students, developing close relationships.

CILLS student Sam Heller says,"We live in a house with six students and two mentors. We learn life skills like cooking, laundry. I'm loving it!"

His proud father, Todd Heller, says, "It's amazing. I can remember the day he was born and we are like, how are we going to deal with this? To imagine that he's graduating from college, it's a great experience."

But while Saturday's ceremony may have felt like a graduation, the CILLS students are not formally enrolled in ESU and do not receive ESU degrees, though they do use campus facilities and socialize with the student body.

When it came time to recognize students completing the program, that distinction lead to some controversy.

Student mentors and some CILLS parents had hoped that the CILLS students would be allowed to participate in ESU's graduation ceremony, an idea that was rebuffed by the school's administration.

Mentor Rebecca Rhodes said that some students even signed a petition. "We are all like one group of students. They should be able to walk with the rest of their graduating class. We don't feel that it's fair they have to have a separate ceremony."

But, as beaming students walked on the stage to accept their certificates, their excitement seemed to outweigh any discontent.

Dr. Domenico Cavaiuolo, the program's director, says, "Take a look. This is a celebration. This is just for them."