In March, the University of Mary Washington (UMW) received the Employer of the Year award from the Virginia Division on Career Development and Transition for its participation in Start on Success (SOS), a school-to-work program launched by the National Organization on Disability.
UMW had begun a partnership with James Monroe High School in the 2021-22 academic year on a paid internship program for high school seniors who receive services through an IEP and are on a path to complete a standard or advanced diploma. During the 2022-23 school year, the UMW departments of Dining, Student Health, and Facilities hosted seven SOS student interns on the campus.
UMW’s campus dining is managed by Sodexo, which first learned about the SOS program in the fall of 2022 when Sarah Dewees, UMW’s director of the Center for Community Engagement contacted General Manager David Schneider to gauge his interest in participating.
Photo: James Monroe High School intern Nate Hessing on the job at UMW Dining.
Schneider determined that the SOS program aligned with Sodexo’s core values and community service goals, and that the partnership would provide great support to his University Dining team. He agreed to participate in the program, and had his team create mentoring opportunities in their marketing, social media, and food service operations. They also provided one-on-one help in learning how to interview for jobs and how to communicate effectively with customers, co-workers, supervisors, and potential employers.
Intern assignments were determined through an interview process. James Monroe High School Special Education Job Coach Angie Poteet worked with the university departments participating in the program to set up interviews with potential candidates.
After the interviews, the departments each identified the students they would like to have as interns, and the students decided which offers they wanted to accept, with two students, Caleb Davis and Nate Hessing, choosing to intern with University Dining.
“After working with Caleb and Nate for a couple of weeks, our internship team leaders identified their skill sets and job preferences,” Schneider says. “For instance, Caleb excelled at organizational tasks, and so he worked with our receiver checking in and storing product shipments and assisting with weekly inventories.”
Throughout the internship, Poteet provided close supervision every day, and frequently met with the dining team leaders to discuss progress, challenges, successes, and areas that required additional mentorship.
“The University of Mary Washington staff have gone above and beyond with their mentorship role on the job site through encouragement and guidance,” Poteet remarks. “Your efforts did not end on the job site as you have supported students by attending their athletic events, stayed in touch after graduation and encouraged students to seek post-secondary education.”
SOS uses early opportunity, close individual support and collaboration to prepare at-risk students for competitive employment and independent living. Up to 85% of participants continue on to postsecondary employment or education, which is three times higher than the overall rate for students with disabilities.
Selected students enroll in a credit-bearing Career and Technical Education course and then participate in a paid internship at a local business with an assigned mentor to assist with problem-solving, accommodations and applying workplace readiness skills. Students are carefully selected into the program in the spring of their junior year and receive classroom instruction to prepare them for field experiences in the fall of their senior year. Participants spend three hours a day, five days a week, at their placement, over the course of 16 weeks. They are accompanied on campus by the program coordinator who checks in regularly with each student.
Since its 1994 inception, the SOS program has been implemented in over a dozen cities around the U.S. and has served more than 4,000 students. Virginia piloted it in 2014 and has since successfully implemented this model in urban, rural, and suburban communities. The JM Start on Success program is funded through the VCU Center on Transition Innovations.