Graduation Controversy: To Walk, or not to Walk

Students of the graduating CILLS class and mentors pose in front of Reibman Administrative Building. Photo Courtesy / CILLS Program
Students of the graduating CILLS class and mentors pose in front of Reibman Administrative Building.
Photo Courtesy / CILLS Program


News Editor

Career and Independent Living and Learning Studies (CILLS) students and the decision about whether or not they may participate in the spring graduation ceremony has caused a campus controversy.

According to the ESU page for the program, CILLS is “intended to help young adults with intellectual and other developmental disabilities prepare and lead productive lives in their communities.” It also states that it is a non-degree certificate program.

While the students engage in activities and programs on the university property, they are not considered students at ESU,  and will likely not walk at regular academic graduation.

“They don’t go through the typical and traditional enrollment process,” said Dr. Domenico Cavaiuolo, coordinator of the CILLS program. “We started the program to assist those people with disabilities to continue to learn and to transition from school to adult life. The program provides an opportunity for them to be included, to be part of the university campus and to gain some confidence while they become productive members of society.”

The program is tailored to fit their needs, and at the conclusion, they do not receive a college diploma. It runs on a three-year cycle and offers program-specific curriculum, including courses such as Plans/Skills for Learning Success, Communication Strategies and Planning for the Future.

The program also allows CILLS students to utilize university extracurricular activities and off-campus housing.

The situation has led ESU students to speak out, and mentors of the CILLS program are circulating a petition in protest.

“People with needs have the same right, if not more, to walk in graduation,” said Eric Marshall, a junior at ESU. “They worked as hard as other students to complete their program, and not allowing them to walk with their peers is discriminatory.”

However, the CILLS students are not technically ESU students due to the design of the program’s course curriculum and non-degree status.

“The administration has worked diligently to give CILLS students access to our facilities and has been essential to the development of the program itself. I applaud them for this; unfortunately, the administration is being stigmatized because of this issue. I hope that the program hosts a graduation ceremony of some sort to celebrate the achievement that those absolutely phenomenal students have reached. They do deserve recognition for the completion of their program,” said Amann, Student Senate Chair of Academic Affairs..

According to Dr. Cavaiuolo, having the CILLS students walk at regular academic graduation was not expected, considering they are not technically enrolled at ESU.

“I’m in the process of putting together a celebration or activity. It will either occur on the last Friday of classes or the last Friday of finals week. We’re going to create a celebration where they will be recognized and given their certificate of completion, and we’re going to try to make it as celebratory as possible so they can see that they’ve completed something very important.”

Although other PASSHE schools have expressed interest in creating similar programs, the CILLS program is unique within the commonwealth, making the issue unique, as well.

Some CILLS mentors are continuing to fight for the students’ right to walk in regular graduation.

The mentors have been passing around petitions and speaking to classes and clubs in an attempt to gain support. During a presentation at a Psychology Association meeting, CILLS mentor, Courtney Cinque, said, “They shouldn’t be treated differently because of their disabilities. They are our peers and should be able to walk at graduation with their fellow classmates.”

The presenters also stated that the CILLS students pay full ESU tuition, and as such, they should be treated equally.

However, Justin Amann explained that the program is funded by a three-year grant. Parents pay a fee to offset the remaining cost that the grant does not cover.

When asked how the issue arose, Dr. Cavaiuolo stated, “It came about because some students got misinformation. There was never any discussion from me; no one ever said that this was going to happen. We would have liked it, but we never assumed it was, and I think for some students—I think they just saw it as an opportunity to get mad about something. Some did it inappropriately.”

On President Welsh’s Twitter, students began launching attacks regarding the CILLS issue mid-to-late February, sending tweets such as, “To hear that the CILLS students may not walk at graduation makes me embarrassed to be an ESU alum. Shame on you @PresidentWelsh.”

Cavaiuolo and Amann both defended the president against student attacks.

“The president does not deserve the negative comments that she received,” said Cavaiuolo. “She has been supportive and interested in what we do. She has been good to us, and we’re just trying to create a celebration for them that is consistent with other programs like this. How it got blown out of proportion is beyond me. It’s unfortunate, because it’s put the program in a negative light.”

While President Welsh remained unavailable for comment, Amann had previously been in contact with the president about the issue.

“The use of the word ‘decision’ is not practical,” said Amann. “This is not something that Dr. Welsh can or cannot decide with the flip of a coin. I don’t think it’s fair to make this assumption and to treat her as a scapegoat because we need someone to blame.”

The mentors in the program express that they are not trying to promote any negativity towards the program or the President, but rather, they are trying to get their voices heard.

There will be a future meeting between the president and CILLS program directors regarding the graduation plans for the students. The CILLS mentors are still collecting signatures in support of their petition and plan to present their signatures to the president in an attempt to sway the decision.

“The decision is essentially made,” said Dr. Cavaiuolo. “We are going to celebrate the students’ completion of the program, and we are just going to present to the president and the university how we are going to celebrate. The decision was ours. We want this to go smoothly. We want the students to feel comfortable and good about what they’ve accomplished. We don’t want problems. We’ve decided to create the celebration. We hope the students will participate in being there and showing support for the program participants and their peers.”

In response to the student mentors’ attempts to make a difference in the decision, Dr. Cavaiuolo also said, “I respect their motivation, and I respect their advocacy towards students with disabilities, but it must be done in a respectful and honorable way. The only ways that change has come about is in a respectful and honorable way with information that is true.”

Dr. Cavaiuolo believes that any petition will not have an effect on the outcome.

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