Student becomes first to graduate from university’s special needs program

Garrison Buchanan was the first student to graduate from East Tennessee State University's...
Garrison Buchanan was the first student to graduate from East Tennessee State University's academic program designed for people with intellectual disabilities.(East Tennessee State University)
Published: May. 12, 2022 at 2:52 PM CDT
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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (Gray News) – Students across the country are preparing to accept their diplomas, wearing caps and gowns to celebrate the success of their hard academic work.

East Tennessee State University is celebrating the first student to graduate from the school’s academic program designed for people with intellectual disabilities.

The founders of Access ETSU worked on details of the program for nearly a decade, adding various aspects step-by-step over the years to ensure its success.

Access ETSU is a two-year certificate program open to students who are 18-28 years of age and who have a desire to continue their education at the university level.

Students in this program have access to the same resources as others. Their classes are immersed with traditional students, and many are taking courses without modifications.

Garrison Buchanan was the first, and only, person at the time to enroll in the program at ETSU when it launched in 2019.

The program has since grown and will have 22 students enrolled in the upcoming fall semester.

“Access ETSU has unlocked a lot of potential in a lot of students, and our community will be better for it,” said Dr. Dawn Rowe, associate professor of Educational Foundations and Special Education.

Buchanan has paved the way for future students as an ambassador for the program.

He was heavily involved in activities around campus and recruitment events to show others what Access ETSU is all about.

He has gained somewhat of a “celebrity status” and has a strong circle of support anywhere he goes.

Buchanan said “friends and campus life” were two of his favorite aspects of going to college, adding how much he enjoyed his social network. “This whole campus is about friends and students,” he said.

In addition to going to class, Buchanan interned at the university’s Basler Center for Physical Activity as a facilities assistant, a position he applied for and interviewed for before being offered the internship.

“I will never forget Dr. Rowe and I standing outside of the Intramural Suite as we eavesdropped on G interviewing for a job with us,” Kari Albarado, director of Campus Recreation at ETSU, said in a post on social media. “Little did I know that day of the impact this program would have.”

Albarado spoke highly of Buchanan’s growth and the memories she shared with him as an intern at the sports facility.

“It can be easy to say no, to say that it’s too much work, to look at limitations instead of possibilities…but man, what a great experience this has been!” Albarado said.

Every student enrolled in Access ETSU has support from their peers. There are currently 45 peer mentors, known as BucMates, who hang out with the students to provide assistance as needed.

“Any student who has a desire to build leadership skills and work on issues with diversity and inclusion can apply,” Rowe explained.

These students have diverse backgrounds and different focuses on education, representing the entire campus community.

The mentors walk alongside students enrolled in the Access program to build mutually empowering and positive peer relationships.

BucMates can go to class with program participants, helping them get the notes and assignments needed, in addition to helping them study.

They also accompany the students to various social events on campus, helping to navigate a full college experience.

The initiative has been a campuswide effort, fostering a truly inclusive experience and making it a natural part of campus culture.

The university partners with community rehab providers to ensure a smooth transition to their careers after college.

Buchanan already has a job lined up with the parks and recreation department after graduation. He’s excited to work at the tennis camp and hopes to branch out to other sports like baseball and disc golf.

Buchanan’s graduation is just one step in changing the mindsets and expectations of others -- showing that nearly anyone is capable of attending college.

“He is raising expectations of what is possible,” said Daniel Scherer Emunds, academic coordinator. “Garrison has shown that it is possible with his hard work and success.”

Buchanan is co-hosting a benefit concert next weekend to raise money for the program by celebrating disability and neurodiversity. This is a chance to celebrate Access ETSU’s inaugural graduate and welcome the incoming class.

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