From singing at home with her kid sister to later performing solo in the spotlight, Lalenja Harrington has found her voice. Now, she helps students with intellectual disabilities find theirs.
“I’m a big advocate for the college experience – to try on different hats and become responsible for yourself,” says Harrington, director of academic life for Beyond Academics at UNCG.
That’s the opportunity Beyond Academics and UNCG’s Integrative Community Studies (ICS) provide.
Now in its seventh year, the program for students with intellectual disabilities emphasizes careers and meaningful avocations as well as community living. Harrington advises the students and helps them on their way to success.
Growing up in rural Alamance County, she and her little sister Rhiannon Giddens sang and harmonized. Her father, who majored in music at UNCG, sang to them – all the relatives on his side of the family played bluegrass. “Like the von Trapps – only old-time,” she says.
Harrington went from harmonizing at the house to being in the chorus of “Godspell” at Western Guilford High School. Then at Princeton she auditioned for the oldest of the school’s female a capella groups, the Tigerlilies, not really knowing the ins and outs. When very late one night she heard singing outside her door, welcoming her into the ensemble, she knew instantly that the Tigerlilies would be a huge part of her college experience.
Later, in Boston, she stepped onto a stage solo and performed “slam poetry” she’d written.
“I was supported by the audience … and people said, ‘Thank you.’ ” The feeling was powerful. She felt elevated. Her slam poetry team eventually made it to the national competition.
These experiences were all part of finding her own voice. And being a part of something bigger than herself.
Three classes of Beyond Academics students have graduated. The program’s enrollment has grown from eight to 48. In addition to staff, many faculty and students are involved in some way. Last year, 17 of Dr. Stephanie Kurtts’ students majoring in specialized education served as academic coaches. Since almost the inception of the program, Dr. Stuart Schleien’s students in community and therapeutic recreation have matched up with Beyond Academics students to explore inclusive activities in student life.
The learning is cross-disciplinary.
All the while, Harrington’s artistic side is evident.
At Western Guilford, she’d been “a nervous wreck” simply auditioning for the chorus of “Godspell.” Those who saw her join Rhiannon Giddens at the big Carolina Chocolate Drops show last year at Aycock Auditorium for a rousing duet of “I Know I’ve Been Changed” know her stage experience has served her well. She and her sister have just released a CD of duets, solos and Harrington’s poetic performances. Her work has been on other CDs by the Grammy-winning Drops. Her poetry and performances often allude to the experience of African-American women who’ve come before her.
This summer, Harrington began doctoral work in Educational Leadership and Cultural Foundations. She feels a sense of urgency to mesh the latest research and best practices she’ll learn with what Beyond Academics is doing every day. “I want to put it into action.”
One course this summer is Critical Pedagogy. “We’ve been looking at the responsibility that educators have in welcoming voices from a diverse range of experiences into the academic setting.
“Post-secondary education for students with intellectual disabilities is an area where UNCG is coming to the fore,” she says. UNCG offers the only such four-year certificate program in the state and recently hosted a statewide summit on the topic.
She sees higher education for those with intellectual disabilities as a social justice issue – it’s about access and being inclusive.
She sees that experiential learning and collaborative learning are most beneficial for the program’s students.
She sees transformations each year, moments of “blossoming.” As a result of four years of classes and campus experiences, the students will be better prepared for future jobs and fulfilling lives.
She knows what those transformative moments were, for herself. Now, she is making a difference in others’ lives, bringing people on campus together, fostering collaborations and relationships.
“I want to support folks in finding their voice and having space to express themselves.”
By Mike Harris, University Relations
Photography by Chris English, University Relations