Breaking Ground 106 - Where are they now? The first Next Steps at Vanderbilt class, 10 years later

By Elizabeth Turner, Vanderbilt Kennedy Center
Edward Nesbitt when he was at Next Steps, working at one of his internships. He is wearing a blue worker vest and using a cutter to trim some paper.
Edward Nesbitt, Next Steps class of 2011

In the midst of the anxiety and turmoil of last year, we also had cause to celebrate. 2020 was the 10th anniversary of inclusive higher education (IHE) for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Tennessee. It was also the 10th anniversary of the first IHE program in the state: Next Steps at Vanderbilt. No one better knows the value of a college experience than the first graduating class of Next Steps students.

Meet the Next Steps Class of ‘11

The Next Steps Class of 2011 includes Hallie Bearden, Sean Falkner, Jeanne Gavigan, Edward Nesbitt, Liz Story, and Andrew Van Cleave. In February 2020, five of the six alums met for a reunion at the Nesbitt home in Belle Meade. The graduates got to catch up and talk about how Next Steps impacted their lives. They were joined in the discussion by their parents and several Next Steps faculty and staff.

“The Next Steps at Vanderbilt Class of 2011 and their families were brave pioneers when they became the first to enter a college certificate program for students with intellectual disability in our state,” said Next Steps program director Tammy Day. “We were so fortunate to partner with them as we began this new realm of offering opportunity and high expectations to this deserving population. It is so gratifying to know that they each believe their years at Vanderbilt provided them with increased confidence and lifelong friendships.”

Andrew van Cleave when he was at Next Steps, holding two weights in the gym with a big smile.
Andrew van Cleave, Next Steps class of 2011

Below are a few responses to questions the graduates and their parents were asked about life after Next Steps.

A decade after graduating college in the Next Steps program, what are you doing now? Are you living on your own? How do you like to spend your time?

Jeanne Gavigan: I currently work at Pope John Paul II High School, where I help in the cafeteria. I like baking cookies and organizing the chips. I live with my dad, and I like to hang out with friends.

Andrew Van Cleave: I volunteer at the Adventure Science Center gift shop stocking merchandise, and I work at Michael’s craft store stocking the store and breaking down boxes. I still live at home, and I enjoy walking the dog, talking on the phone, and keeping up with friends on Facebook.

Liz Story: I work for the Susan Gray Preschool. I step in if a teacher needs a break, I help with attendance in the office, and deliver lunch carts to the classrooms. I have my own condo in Green Hills, and I love it. I get to walk to restaurants and the grocery store. I live with my best friend from kindergarten!

How did Next Steps help to shape you and your future? What is your advice to current college students enrolled through Next Steps?

Hallie Bearden: Next Steps gave me confidence in building relationships. It helped me grow and gave me a variety of new skills. Most importantly, my time at Vanderbilt helped me to become independent. My advice to current students is, don’t be afraid to ask for help. You’ll learn a lot and have a lot of fun.

Sean Falkner: I made so many great friends. I always had people who were looking out for me, and I felt like I belonged to something. My advice to current students is, follow your schedule, make good friends, and get to class on time. If you want something bad enough, you will keep working at it, so you’ve got to stay motivated.

Edward Nesbitt: Next Steps taught me to be more independent and reliable. I’m grateful for the people who helped keep me accountable. I loved hanging out with my Ambassadores (peer mentors), playing basketball, going out to lunch and dinner with classmates, and feeling like a real college student. Going to college gives you a lot of freedom. It’s so worth it. Keep a positive attitude, and soak up every moment of your experience.

Jeanne Gavigan when she was at Next Steps, smiling and in bright pink workout clothes on a treadmill
Jeanne Gavigan, Next Steps class of 2011

Parents, how has going to college impacted your child? How have you seen them grow since beginning their college journey and now after graduating?

Mary Layne Van Cleave, mother to Andrew: Before college, Andrew was very shy and really did not communicate with people that he didn’t know. Next Steps taught Andrew to advocate for himself and express his wants and needs. I’m most proud of his dedication to work. He is a dependable, hard worker, able to handle situations by himself and be independent.

Ann Story, mother to Liz: All the courses that she took really expanded her knowledge. Elizabeth was interested in child studies and was able to take classes tailored to her interests. The biggest thing she has gained is confidence. She was always encouraged to think for herself and try new things. Her exposure to a broader world and how to handle herself in that world was all knowledge gained at Next Steps. I’m most proud of her positive nature and her faith.

Bill Gavigan, father to Jeanne: College had an incredibly dramatic impact. Jeanne has matured, and she has so much more confidence. I’m most proud of her confidence with people. She has no problem speaking in front of others or presenting in front of others. She is fearless.

Elizabeth Turner is associate director of Communications and Dissemination for the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.