Billy Hillman knew all about getting ready for college. He'd helped his five older siblings pack their bags and move out of their home in Duluth.
It never occurred to him — or his parents — that Billy, a lanky sports fan who has an intellectual disability, would follow in their footsteps.
But this fall, the 20-year-old moved his collection of Minnesota Twins pennants and his stuffed Mickey Mouse into a dorm at Bethel University.
Billy didn't cry when it was time to say goodbye, but his mother did.
"When you take a kid to college, it's always emotional, but when it's a kid you never dreamed would be here, it's doubly so," said Beth Hillman. "Will he remember to shave regularly? He's not very verbal; will he ask for help? I'm used to being in control. It's a huge letting go."
Hillman, who has cognitive impairment related to his premature birth, was one of a dozen students who marked a personal milestone — and broke a barrier in higher education in Minnesota. As they carried their boxes and suitcases into the residence hall and posed for photos in their Bethel shirts, they became the first class of students with intellectual disabilities at the Christian college in Arden Hills.
While there are several programs in private institutions and community colleges, Bethel is the only accredited four-year college in Minnesota to offer a residential program for students such as Billy. The 12 Bethel University Inclusive Learning and Development (BUILD) students will earn two-year certificates rather than four-year degrees. Other than that, their experience mirrors that of the students they share the campus with: They live in dorms, eat at dining halls, go to class, join clubs and hang out with friends.
And it's expected that, like other Bethel students, they'll leave college prepared for better, more satisfying work, and with skills to take charge of their lives.
"For the first time, they're calling the shots, not their parents," said Dawn Allen, the director of the BUILD program. "Education has been done to them in the past. This changes that."
The BUILD students choose their own area of specialty: business, the arts, education and human services or ministry. They talk about finding careers that connect with their talents.
"I want to work in an office. Data entry," said Maggie Erickson, 24, of St. Paul. "I can type anything."
Part of the community
Erickson spent the summer counting the days till move-in on her Facebook page. After arriving on campus, she developed a reputation for friendliness and flash; on a recent day she greeted many of the students she passed as she strolled across campus, clad in cowboy boots and jeans clasped with a rhinestone belt, a zebra-print backpack slung over her shoulder.
"I like college," she said, her retainer flashing as she grinned. "I knew I would."
She also likes her new roommate.
"We're a lot alike. We both like shopping, we both like Taylor Swift and we both have boyfriends," she explained.
Erickson and her roommate, who both have Down syndrome, live in a six-person suite in Lissner Hall, Bethel's newest dormitory. Two of their suitemates are fellow BUILD students and the other two are "housing mentors" — upper-class Bethel students who are in a paid supervisory role similar to that of an RA.
Only a dozen of the 288 students in their dorm are in the BUILD program, which is by design.
"They're part of the larger community and they're building natural friendships," Allen said. "They're becoming part of a group of friends who do things together."
Such integration is nothing new for today's students, who came of age in a more progressive era for people with intellectual disabilities. But until recently, that integration often hasn't included college.
"We've been blessed starting with early intervention, then mainstream classrooms and activities from Day 1," said Catherine Erickson, Maggie's mother. "School lasts till they're 21, but then it kind of fizzles. They get functional skills, but there's been no lifelong learning, which is important for everyone. That's why this is a godsend."
As the school year begins, BUILD students are taking classes designed for their learning needs, but starting next semester they will also audit courses available to all Bethel students. They'll also start internships that begin on campus this semester, but move off campus next year.
Roommates Billy Hillman and Sam Kohs are both interning with Bethel's hockey team.
"I love the sports and the outdoors," said Kohs, 22, of Forest Lake. "I think I could work in a sporting goods store that sells fishing and camping stuff."
A building movement
The idea for the BUILD program came from Julie White, a 1976 Bethel alumna and member of the university's board of trustees. White wanted her daughter Emily, who has Down syndrome, to have the college experience. White searched the country for residential programs before finding one at National Louis University in Skokie, Ill. Emily, now 29, finished college, works in a bridal salon and lives on her own.
"That's an important job that she earned," said White. "Someone other than the family has seen her gifts. That's the real magic."
White approached Bethel's leadership team and fellow board members to urge them to open their doors to intellectually disabled students.
"Everyone embraced it quickly because it felt aligned with Bethel's mission," said White.
On move-in day, White met with parents to give them a pep talk.
"I was where you are," she said. "You're between pure joy and pure terror, right? You've poured so much of your time, energy and prayers into your student. They all got an extra dose of parenting. We've been their advocates, but independence is all about self-advocacy. This is where they'll learn that."
Seated in the audience was Jordan Kohs, a sophomore at St. Catherine University in St. Paul and the sister of Sam Kohs.
"I want my brother to have the same opportunities and experiences that I'm having," she said, "to move away from home, make friends and find his passion, to live his own life."
In the past decade, there has been growing momentum on a national scale to make higher education more inclusive for students with intellectual disabilities.
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education began funding demonstration projects at 244 colleges nationwide that developed postsecondary programs.
A Boston-based coordinating center is tracking the effort. Meg Grigal is co-director of Think College, the organization charged with developing and expanding higher-ed options.
"We have a history of lowballing our expectations for these young people," said Grigal. "We want to put them on the path to finding meaningful work and change the cycle of dependency. It will be better for them and better for the economy."
A college certificate demonstrates that a student has commitment and follow-through, she said.
"They'll leave college with a résumé and credentials that will be recognized by employers and show they're ready to work," she said. "More of them will get out of low-wage sheltered workshops and be prepared for competitive employment. They'll be ready for an integrated workplace, working with people without disabilities."
Freedom and responsibility
When the BUILD students arrived on campus, they got iPads for homework, scheduling classes and extracurricular activities. The iPads also have twice-daily basic checklists to remind them about personal care. (A morning to-do list may include dressing, showering, tooth brushing and applying deodorant.)
The students haven't been allowed to spend a night away from campus yet, a practice designed to help them — and their families — settle into their new living situation.
That's been a challenge, and not just for the students. Some parents have contacted director Allen, worried about everything from cellphone use to sleep patterns.
"I think my mom misses me more than I miss her," Erickson said.
Kohs admitted he'd been "a little homesick. Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I wish I was home," he said. "I FaceTime my parents when I miss them."
But technology only goes so far; several families visited the campus, some even brought the family dog so the student could have a cuddle.
The students' ability to take care of themselves was a factor in the complex admission process Bethel devised.
There were no test scores or essays, although the students were required to have a high school diploma or an equivalent. Instead, the application focused on an extensive questionnaire, letters of recommendation and in-person interviews.
Six weeks into the semester, Allen said the students are embracing their new autonomy.
"We're seeing what happens when students are given an opportunity," she said. "This is life-changing stuff."
She has noticed students taking on tasks their parents had managed. For example, one parent planned to take her daughter to the doctor for a flu shot. Allen had the student schedule her own shot with the nurse on campus instead.
"We also see them needing fewer prompts with their responsibilities," she said. "One of our students at first needed to be reminded to move his laundry from the washer to the dryer. Now he's doing it. That's progress."
In many ways, the BUILD students are no different from any new arrival on campus, said Allen. They all have to adjust to the freedom —and the responsibility — that comes with leaving home.
"I'm still learning my way around, but I'm less nervous about getting lost now," Kohs said. "I'm having a fun college experience."
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and newscaster at BringMeTheNews.com.