Vanderbilt Kennedy Center

Next Steps at Vanderbilt University

Next Steps at Vanderbilt University is a 2-year nonresidential certification program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, providing individualized Programs of Study in the areas of education, social skills, and vocational training.


Our mission is to provide transformational learning experiences, within an inclusive educational setting, for young adults with intellectual disabilities, university students, faculty, staff, and community leaders.


The goal of the program is to broaden the career options and opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities in inclusive, age-appropriate settings. In order for these students to best meet the expectations of adults in our society, they need to have integrated educational experiences. The goals are for the students to have the “outcomes we all value -- a career, close relationships, and enjoyment….” (Hughes & Carter, Transition Handbook, Brookes Pub., 2000).

Individual Programs of Study

Next Steps at Vanderbilt is committed to the integration of students with intellectual disabilities in all aspects of the university and the surrounding community. Students will self-direct the development of their Program of Study through initial and on-going Person-Centered Planning activities. The Program of Study is a unique and customized plan for achievement in academic areas, independent living skills, career development, and university life. While Next Steps students work towards completing an individual Program of Study, they must also complete the programs to earn a Next Steps certificate upon completion.

See details about the following Next Steps at Vanderbilt programs:

Peer Mentors: Next Steps at Vanderbilt Ambassadores

Peer mentors are the backbone of Next Steps at Vanderbilt as they provide the majority of the support the students receive. A diverse group of individuals from the VU student body are selected to serve as peer mentors. The students receive training and on-going support from the Next Steps at Vanderbilt staff. VU students have the opportunity to be academic tutors, daily planning buddies, work-out buddies, lunch buddies or job trainers for students.


Students leave Next Steps at Vanderbilt with a Certificate of Completion. They also have an electronic portfolio that they build during their time in the program. The portfolio highlights the courses they have taken, the experiences they have had in career development and social events, and the independent living skills they have mastered.

Family Perspectives

Parent and sibling thoughts on the merits of the Next Steps’ experience are useful tools for gauging the value of this educational program.

Research and Evaluation

The Next Steps at Vanderbilt program is committed to evaluating the progress made by students each semester. The program evaluates progress toward goals in various areas (academic skills; employment skills; independent living and social skills; and self-determination). Evaluations are based on feedback from the many different groups involved in the program: the Next Steps at Vanderbilt students themselves; their parents; the program staff and Ambassadores; and internship supervisors.

Additionally, the Next Steps at Vanderbilt program is committed to evaluating the systems in place to support the Next Steps at Vanderbilt students, their families, their Ambassadores, and their internship supervisors. These evaluations not only guide the further development of the program, but document student progress and program development for other similar programs across the country.


In 2004, a small group of parents of teens with intellectual disabilities and professionals in the field of disabilities began meeting to explore the possibility of developing postsecondary education programming for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID/DD) in Tennessee. In 2006, the small group expanded its reach and membership to found the Tennessee Postsecondary Education Task Force (presently known as the Tennessee Alliance for Postsecondary Education Opportunities for Students With Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities). Members included parents; Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities; Department of Human Services; Tennessee Department of Education; Tennessee Higher Education Commission; Metro-Davidson, Rutherford, and Williamson County schools; various higher education institutions; and disability service agencies. The first tasks included identifying priorities and purpose, examining and visiting existing programs, and the developing and implementing of a statewide survey on parental perspectives in regards to postsecondary education programming.

This discovery process led the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities to offer a grant that would allow for the establishment of a pilot program in Tennessee. The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center was awarded this grant and in the spring of 2009 began developing Tennessee’s first postsecondary education program on the Vanderbilt University campus. Faculty, staff, and graduate students at Vanderbilt spent 2009 developing a program and networking across the University’s campus. In January of 2010, Next Steps at Vanderbilt welcomed its first class of students.

See Also...

Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Links

Printable Materials and Resources

News Releases and Media Mentions

  • Jeanne Gavigan's TPAC Story
    This video highlights Next Steps at Vanderbilt graduate Jeanne Gavigan (class of 2011) in her internship at TPAC (Tennessee Performing Arts Center).
  • I'm Thinking College (Even With My Disability)
    Students with intellectual disabilities enrolled in a postsecondary education program in Tennessee talk about their experiences at college and highlight the need for more such programs. Developed by the Tennessee Alliance for Postsecondary Opportunities for Students With Intellectual Disabilities ( and produced by the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities.
  • Next Steps: Redefining “team effort”
  • Nextsteps Graduation Video 2011
    Watch the first class of students graduate from Vanderbilt's new Next Steps program, which provides students with intellectual disabilities training in social and vocational skills.