Jackson’s Union University EDGE Program Offers Christian Education in Small-Town Setting

/ January 18, 2017


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By Janet Shouse

Inclusive higher education programs, as we discussed last week, offer young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities the opportunity to gain independence, self-advocacy skills and employment training on a university campus alongside peers, both those with disabilities and those without.

This week, I’m going to focus on Union University’s EDGE program. EDGE is an acronym for Employment training, Daily living skills, Godly focus, Educational enrichment. Union University is a private, Christian university located in Jackson, TN, with 3,500 students. EDGE had its first cohort of students in fall 2015.

I spoke recently with Jennifer Graves, the director of the EDGE program, and I asked my series of questions about Union’s inclusive higher ed program.

The EDGE program offers this as its mission: “Through receiving a Christ-centered Christian higher education, graduates are equipped with improved academic, social, communication, and job skills to that they may serve Church and society through their personal and vocational life.”

Q: How did the EDGE program get started? Who served as champions? Faculty or family or someone else?

A. Ann Walker was key to the creation of the EDGE program. In 2014, Mrs. Walker, who is also an alumna of Union and the grandparent of a young adult with a disability, approached the then-new Union University president, Samuel W. “Dub” Oliver, about the idea of a post-secondary program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. As an alum, she wanted a “Union experience” for her grandson, much like the one she had when she was an undergraduate. And, as an active member of the Union Women’s Auxiliary, she knows the values and the commitment of the current students and faculty. In addition, Ann Singleton, professor of special education and associate provost, was instrumental in the program’s development and now serves as the program’s faculty advisor. Dr. Oliver was excited to have Union create an inclusive higher education program, and the EDGE program was announced in early 2015.

About the Author


Janet Shouse is a parent of a young adult with autism, and she is passionate about inclusion, employment of people with disabilities, medical issues related to developmental disabilities, supports and services, public policy, legislative initiatives, advocacy, and the intersection of faith and disability. She wears many hats at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, including one as a disability employment specialist for TennesseeWorks.

Our hope is that this weekly blog will offer information you want to know, so if you have a question you want answered about employment for people with disabilities or other mysteries of the world of work, please email me at janet.shouse@vumc.org.

Q: What is the eligibility criteria for the EDGE program?

A. Admission will be based on the following criteria:

  • Applicants must be between the ages of 18-26 at the start of the program.
  • The applicant must have a significant cognitive and/or developmental disability that interferes with their academic performance.
  • The applicant must have sufficient emotional and independent stability to participate in all aspects of the Union EDGE coursework and campus environment.
  • The applicant must demonstrate the ability to accept and follow reasonable rules and behave respectfully towards others. (Note: Union EDGE does not have the personnel to supervise students with difficult and challenging behaviors or dispense medications.)
  • The applicant must demonstrate the desire to attend the Union EDGE Program and adhere to the policies regarding attendance and participation in their program of study and typical Union University classes.
  • The applicant must have the potential to successfully achieve his/her goals within the context of the Union EDGE program’s content and setting.
  • Due to our collaboration with the Tennessee Division of Rehabilitation Services’ Vocational Rehabilitation program, all Union EDGE students must have an open case with Vocational Rehabilitation, if they are eligible. Accepted students and their families will agree to this condition in order to retain their eligibility for the Union EDGE.

Q: How many students are in the program?

A: The program began with seven students in the 2015-2016 school year, and nine students joined in 2016-2017. EDGE has openings for a total of 10 students a year. While EDGE is a two-year certificate program, Union also offers an optional third year called the “bridge program.” Students in the bridge program can live in graduate student housing, and they partner with the School of Social Work. Those students much a 20-hour workweek, and the school assists students in finding jobs.

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Q: What does a student’s day look like?

A: Each student audits two regular college courses and attends two life skills classes. They also have a cooking lab each week. During the first year, students have on-campus internships of six hours per week. During the second year, they have off-campus, paid internships of between six and 15 hours per week. If you want to see what kinds of jobs the EDGE students have, you can check out their newsletter.

Q: Do you offer residential options?

A: Yes, students can live on campus, and they pay the same as typical students pay for room and board.

Q: What is the tuition? And how do most families pay for that?

A: The tuition is $15,500. The Vocational Rehabilitation program, which students must be involved with, will pay $4,800 a year. There is also the Tennessee STEP-UP Scholarship, which is similar to the state’s HOPE scholarship that students who achieve a regular high school diploma can receive. This scholarship will provide $1,750 per semester. See Tennessee STEP-UP Scholarship for more information.

Q: What is the employment rate of your graduates?

A: Since the program only began in 2015, no one has graduated yet, but everyone in the second year is employed at competitive wages.

Q: What sets your program apart from others?

 A: Union offers the Christian perspective, which is appealing to a number of families and students. The fact that Jackson is a more rural setting, and both the university and the town are smaller than the locations of the state’s other inclusive higher education programs also are important for some. Jennifer said, “There’s a compassion on campus. People know our students and reach out to them.” Each student has five mentors, who are fellow students who volunteer to help answer questions, navigate campus, eat meals with or hang out with the students. One key difference is that Union offers students a residential option. Those students who live on campus have three roommates, who are students without disabilities. The students who want to live on campus have to be able to take care of all their basic needs, including medication administration. Currently, 14 of 16 students live on campus. And Union draws from beyond its immediate vicinity, with one student from Texas, three from Nashville, and one from Memphis. One other difference is that EDGE students get the opportunity to walk across the stage for graduation with their peers.

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 Q: Anything else you think is important for students and families to know about inclusive higher education programs in general or yours in particular.

 A: “The student has to want to do this. If the student doesn’t want do it, it doesn’t work,” Jennifer said.

The EDGE program offers a Preview Day on Feb. 20. EDGE is currently accepting applications and interviewing prospective students for the 2017-2018 year. Any professional, junior or senior in high school with intellectual disabilities, or parent who has an interest in learning more about the Union EDGE Program is welcome to attend Preview Day. Sign up at www.uu.edu/EDGE

As I mentioned earlier, Tennessee currently has five inclusive higher education programs for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They are:

For additional information about the Tennessee Inclusive Higher Education programs and the alliance they have created, check out the Tennessee Inclusive Higher Education Alliance at tnihealliance.org/.

If you or your son or daughter have any interest in learning more about inclusive higher education programs, Vanderbilt University will host the 3rd Annual Inclusive Southeastern Postsecondary Education Conference and Capacity Building Institute in Nashville on June 26-27, 2017. The Southeastern Postsecondary Education Alliance will gather leaders from across the region to share best practices in all aspects of college for students with intellectual disabilities.

One unique focus of the Southeastern Conferences is the strong number of participants that are self-advocates, i.e. alumni, current students, and potential students. While all breakout sessions are open to all participants, we will offer some sessions that are especially designed to be more interactive and geared to student interests. We hope many youth will join us this summer to spend two nights in a dormitory on campus! They all are welcome to stay on campus or in a nearby hotel. For more information or to register, see the Southeastern Postsecondary Education Alliance conference link.

My thanks to Jennifer Graves for talking with me about the EDGE program. Jennifer served as a special education teacher for several years before becoming a school counselor at a private school in Memphis. Jennifer said she feels like she has truly found her niche as the director of the Union EDGE program.

If you have questions about inclusive higher education programs, please contact me at janet.shouse@vumc.org, and I will be happy to find answers for you.

One more quick reminder to join us for Tennessee’s Disability Day on the Hill on Feb. 8 from 9:00 to 2:00 p.m. Learn about your legislature, about updates in public policy regarding individuals with disabilities and share your story with your lawmakers. Please make appointments with your legislators and register for Disability Day on the Hill at https://tndisabilitydayonthehill17.splashthat.com/.

Photo Captions: 

Photo Caption 1: Jennifer Graves, EDGE Director; Diana Bawcum, Community Resources Coordinator; Kevin Ung, Assistant Director

Photo Caption 2: The current EDGE cohort

Photo Caption 3: Maria Tatman, EDGE student, receives her first paycheck from the Old Country Store.

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