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Graduates of the first class of Nicholls State’s Bridge to Independence Certificate Program pose with Advisor Mary Breaud. From left, are Cooper Crosby, Sean Adams, Breaud, Paige Faucheux, Mary Szush and Caroline Owens. (Submitted)

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Caroline Owens is shown Wednesday with her parents Joe and Judy Owens. (The Daily Review/Zachary Fitzgerald)

Bridge to Independence

Owens graduates from program’s first class at Nicholls

Caroline Owens helped make history last month at Nicholls State University.

On May 19, Owens, 21, of Morgan City, was one of five students to graduate in the inaugural class of Nicholls State’s Bridge to Independence Certificate Program. Members of the graduating class began taking courses in the fall of 2016.

Bridge to Independence is a two-year, certified transition program that gives “students with intellectual disabilities a college experience,” Program Advisor Mary Breaud said. Breaud is also an assistant professor in Nicholls’ College of Education.

The program is the first of its kind in Louisiana.

Owens is the daughter of Joe and Judy Owens. Both of her parents and her older brother, Justin, are Nicholls graduates, too.

“She saw all three of us graduate, and she knew she had to graduate from Nicholls,” Joe Owens said.

Judy Owens ended up getting an education degree in 2009 after she started taking courses to assist her daughter, who has Down syndrome.

Caroline Owens already has a job lined up and is set to start work Tuesday at Thibodaux Police Department in the records room entering traffic violations in the computer from paper tickets, Judy Owens said.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 afforded students with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to have a higher education experience, such as the Bridge to Independence Program.

“They enter in a cohort in the fall, and the cohort stays together until graduation,” Breaud said. “The goal of the program is for independent living and independence in jobs.”

Caroline Owens’ path to college graduation started with one phone call.

One summer, Joe Owens called about enrolling his daughter in a two-week culinary camp at Nicholls, which she attended and thoroughly enjoyed.

She went to Morgan City High School where faculty did a great job of helping her learn and encouraging interaction with other students, Joe Owens said.

“If she could do that in high school, we could try it in college,” Joe Owens remembers thinking.

After she graduated from Morgan City High in 2015, Joe Owens called Nicholls again to see if there were any post-high school culinary programs that she could attend.

He was referred to the Office of Disability Services and was told school officials were interested in starting such a program, but he would have to raise funds to start the program.

Joe Owens found a few other people to help raise money to launch the program. Two organizations that help people with Down syndrome, Blessed by Downs and Upside Downs, also became involved in the effort.

“It’s kind of really snowballed,” Joe Owens said of the effort to begin the program.

There are now over 30 students enrolled in the program. Joe Owens was impressed by how much Nicholls’ students accepted students in the Bridge program, interacting with them and taking them to sporting events.

“To see them just mingle, it’s unreal. Students walking by giving them high fives, shaking their hands, you wouldn’t have seen that in our day. They had a special place, a special bus,” Joe Owens said.

“Now they’re all visible, which (is how) it should be,” Judy Owens said.

The small size of Nicholls’ campus is ideal for the Bridge program because students can quickly get across campus, Joe Owens said.

In the Bridge program, students audit selected college classes along with elective courses and finish the courses with accommodations and modifications from the program staff. They also do internships, which provide them skills to be able to work as independently as possible “in meaningful jobs” after graduation, Breaud said.

Nicholls’ certified Bridge program allows students to qualify for federal financial aid in the form of Pell grants. To qualify for the program, students must have completed high school and be under 28 years old. They have to complete an application, a campus tour, personal interview and display “various skills as far as safety and independence,” Breaud said.

Internships are available through Nicholls’ culinary school, admissions department, on-campus daycare and the recreation center. Caroline Owens did her final internship in the library at St. Joseph Elementary School in Thibodaux checking in books there. She also worked at Nicholls’ culinary school re-stocking shelves with spices.

“She’s just determined,” Joe Owens said. “If she sees it, she wants to conquer it. All she has to do, and I think most of those kids, is be given a chance.”

Her favorite part of the Bridge program was going to the recreation center to work out. Graduates leave the Bridge program with a binder showing their classroom and working skills along with a resume.

Courses they take include physical conditioning, university prep, sanitation and food safety and interpersonal communication.

In addition to the two-year certificate program that Caroline Owens completed, Bridge to Independence also offers a four-year degree program for students with autism spectrum disorder, who just need some extra supervision to get their degrees, Judy Owens said.

People interested in the Bridge to Independence program may contact Nicholls State’s Office of Admissions at 985-448-4507 and nicholls@nicholls.edu, or Breaud at 985-448-4341 and mary.breaud@nicholls.edu.

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