TigerLIFE in Memphis Offers Big Program in Big City

/ February 15, 2017

By Janet Shouse

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.


We have looked, over the past several weeks, at the Tennessee universities that offer inclusive higher education programs for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This week we look at Tennessee’s largest and most ethnically diverse inclusive higher ed program, which is TigerLIFE at the University of Memphis.

Founded in January 2013, TigerLIFE operates under the Institute of Disability in the College of Education at the University of Memphis. As with the other programs, TigerLIFE is a 60-hour program culminating in a completion award in Career and Community Studies.  Participation in the TigerLIFE program provides students with an option for continuing their education beyond high school to increase employment opportunities.

Cindy Cassell, coordinator of community outreach for TigerLIFE, recently shared information about the University of Memphis program with me.

So, why is the program called TigerLIFE? The Tiger, for those of you who don’t know, is the mascot for the University of Memphis, and LIFE stands for “Learning Independence, Fostering Employment & Education.”

Q: How did your program get started? Who served as champions? Faculty or family or someone else?
The TigerLIFE Program was founded under a true collaborative partnership formed between the Region 9 Vocational Rehabilitation Services office, the University’s Institute on Disability and the parents of the program’s eight inaugural students. Our champions are our “MVP” Maurice Williams, the program’s founding director, and the parents who believed in the vision. Our faculty leader, Dr. Chrisann Schiro-Geist, and Dr. Kay Reeves were the master thesis advisors for Maurice Williams and aided him in bringing his thesis to life.

Q: What is the eligibility criteria?

  • Applicants must be between the ages of 18-29 at the start of the program.
  • The applicant must have a significant cognitive and /or developmental disability that interferes with his or her academic performance.
  • The applicant must have sufficient emotional and independent stability to participate in all aspects of the TigerLIFE coursework and campus environment.
  • The applicant should be able to sit through 90-minute courses and function independently for two-hour blocks of time.
  • The applicant must demonstrate the ability to accept and follow reasonable rules and behave respectfully towards others.
  • The applicant must demonstrate the desire to attend TigerLIFE and adhere to the TigerLIFE policies regarding attendance and participation in the coursework and typical University of Memphis classes.
  • The applicant must have the potential to successfully achieve his or her goals within the context of the TigerLIFE programs content and setting.

TigerLIFE 2016 Completion Ceremony

Q: How many students are in the program?
We have 75 to 100 students each semester (100 is max capacity).

Q: What does a student’s day look like?
: A student’s day can vary greatly from semester to semester with a mix of classroom activities, on-campus activities and community-based activities. Generally, activities are scheduled between 8:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. and occur Monday through Friday, although student schedules may be for three or four days a week.

The overall view of classroom, on-campus and community-based activities include:

  • Workforce Advocacy
  • Workforce Learning/Employability
  • Independent Learning for Community Inclusion and Lab
  • Functional Literacy for the Workforce
  • Health Advocacy and Healthy Living Lab at the Wellness Center
  • Community Exploration Learning Lab
  • Social Intervention and Prevention for Independent Living
  • Senior Seminar
  • Internships (on-campus training work sites)
  • Externships (community-based training work sites)
  • Audit classes with the University of Memphis
  • Independent Study Classes

Some of these occur in a classroom setting or on campus, others involve transporting students into the community. Each student has ongoing interactions with TigerLIFE staff as well as university students, instructors and employees.

Internships occur in campus-based departments, offices and businesses. For example, this semester there are internships offered in the university library, bookstore and physical plant.

Externships are in community-based businesses and organizations. This semester, externships are offered at a nursing home and a national retail store. There has been a significant focus on the Crosstown Concourse development, which will house a range of retail, large and small organizations, businesses and residents. This is a 900,000-square-foot development and holds the promise of many opportunities for TigerLIFE students and the Memphis community.

Q: Do you offer residential options?
: We don’t offer housing at this time, but plans are proceeding to offer residential options in the near future. A pilot project, The BRIDGE, is being proposed to implement a two-week intensive independent living training program for this summer. This would include living in dormitories on-campus for two weeks while participating in classes and community-based labs focused on independent living skills.

Q: What’s the tuition? And, if you know, how do most families pay for that?
Tuition is $275 per credit hour with a maximum of $4,950 per semester for 18 credit hours. The large majority of our students are eligible for the Tennessee STEP-UP Scholarships, Vocational Rehabilitation Services, and Pell Grants. These sources of financial aid more than cover the semester costs. If a student is not eligible for any or part of these, the family pays the costs.

Q: What is the employment rate of your graduates?
For those students who completed the program prior to the fall 2016 semester, 76% of our graduates are employed.

Q: What sets your program apart from others?
I think there are a number of things that set our program apart:

  • The individualized attention each student and family receives is exceptional, considering the large number of students
  • The addition of community-based learning labs to support classroom instruction/learning offers real world hands-on experiences
  • Partnerships being formed with large, established community entities such as Church Health and Crosstown Concourse, which, in turn, will help create new and expanded opportunities for TigerLIFE students to learn and work in the community
  • The high employment rate for students who complete the program

Q: Anything else you think is important for students and families to know about PSE programs in general or yours in particular.
The need for post-secondary education programs in the Memphis Region far exceeds the capacity of TigerLIFE as evidenced by the rapid growth from eight students in 2013 to 82 students in 2016. With the support of a U.S. Department of Education Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities Grant, the Institute on Disability/TigerLIFE is working with several universities and colleges to develop and implement programs similar to TigerLIFE. We’re working specifically with University of Memphis Lambuth Campus in Jackson, TN; Lemoyne-Owen College in Memphis; Lane College in Jackson, and Alabama A&M University in Huntsville, AL.

In addition to TigerLife’s efforts to expand opportunities for inclusive higher ed programs in the West, three schools in the East are planning Community Conversations to explore this idea:

If you would like to learn more about inclusive higher education programs, you may want to attend the 3rd Annual Inclusive Southeastern Postsecondary Education Conference and Capacity Building Institute in Nashville on June 26-27, 2017. From some photos on the TigerLIFE webpages, it looks like some of their students had an enjoyable time at last year’s conference in Atlanta, GA.

If you have missed the previous Rise to Work blogs on postsecondary programs, Tennessee currently has five. The others are:

I want to thank Cindy for giving me the scoop on TigerLIFE and the Institute on Disability’s efforts to expand inclusive higher education program in Tennessee and beyond. Wonderful work!

Share this Post