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Realizing A Dream

From some of her earliest memories, Melia Wilcox, ’23, always knew she wanted to be an educator.

“I was one of those kids who set up stuffed animals and played school when I was little,” says Wilcox. “The more I went through my own school experience and recognized teachers are ‘cool’ too, I started to really see myself being one.”

As she prepares to graduate this spring, Wilcox is one step closer to her dreams coming true. She has spent a semester student teaching third grade and working with fifth and sixth grade special education students in the Wintergreen Interdistrict Magnet School in Hamden, Conn. As an honors student, she is also completing her senior capstone project with Vista Life Innovations, a full-service organization supporting individuals with disabilities throughout the various stages of life. 

By the end of the summer, Wilcox will be dual certified in special education, grades K-12 and elementary education, grades 1-6 – an opportunity that was foremost in her mind when it came time to choose a college.

“As soon as I heard about the collaborative education program I wanted to come here,” explains Wilcox. “I wanted to get my feet wet with both – and that opportunity and the Honors College drew me right to Southern.”

According to Judith Terpstra, professor of special education, the Collaborative program has been around for more than 20 years and is the only one of its kind in Connecticut’s public universities. 

“Students in the Collaborative program often choose SCSU for this option,” said Terpstra. 

Growing up in Stonington, Conn., Wilcox enjoyed her personal experiences with public schools but was most inspired when watching her older brother, Billy, navigate the education system as a student with autism.

“As Billy was going through high school and beginning his transitional planning/services, I was so fascinated with the process,” says Wilcox. “I think that the most inspiring thing I saw was the impact that his special education teacher, and all of those working in support services alongside him, had on his life and our family’s life.”

As Billy graduated from high school, he was given a plan and a path to follow – work that has come full circle in Wilcox’s internship with Vista. After calling several community organizations to see where she could be most useful, she connected quickly with Vista’s mission and their need for additional help developing curriculum, which she will continue to do over the summer.

“It takes tremendous interpersonal communication skills, open-mindedness, commitment, a willingness to see issues from other perspectives, flexibility, humility, and drive… and sometimes multiple tries to secure a successful serve-learn relationship that is able to build enough trust for the researcher to conduct their work,” says Chelsea Harry, associate professor of philosophy and advisor in the Honors College. “Melia was never dissuaded from the various disappointments she experienced on her way to securing a viable community partnership. The partner she found in Vista was ideal, made obvious by the fact that she continued working with them after her Honors capstone was complete!”

“I spent the entire spring semester last year going to Vista two to three times per week, talking with program instructors and program directors,” says Wilcox. “We really broke down their standards and core values, and what they felt students needed.”

A year and a half later, Wilcox was able to hand Vista instructors approximately 95 pages of transitional program options for instructors, covering post-secondary education skills like money management, grocery shopping, applying for jobs, and more, broken down for individuals with varying ability levels. And that’s in addition to serving on the executive board and as president of Southern’s Best Buddies chapter and mentoring younger college students in the College of Education’s Future Teachers Organization.

And while it couldn’t have always been easy, Wilcox’s professors say she had a particular way of taking things in stride, and always showing up as a “good friend” to her fellow students and colleagues.

“In addition to excellent grades (3.95 GPA) and being part of the Honors College, Melia is a great overall student and I’m sure she will be an amazing teacher,” says Terpstra. “She is always excited to work with the children in field placements and has a high energy and creativity that is beneficial in elementary grades.”  


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