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First Career Community Students
(Left to right) Marlene O’Toole, Daniel Monahan, Maja Petras, and Carlton Allen outside the men’s townhome.

College graduation is at once an exciting time of accomplishment and a nervy realization that it’s time to navigate the world independently as an adult.

Not that everyone is ready to launch. Some 20 percent of college graduates with learning differences and attention issues stumble immediately after graduation in making successful transitions to full independence and to rewarding careers.

These graduates can benefit from a little more seasoning before making the leap.

This reality undergirds Beacon College’s pioneering pilot program, the First Career Community.

Funded by a $50,000 grant from the David R. Clare and Margaret C. Clare Foundation — a Morristown, NJ charity whose funding areas include higher education and human services — the First Career Community is a two-year postgraduate program for Beacon College graduates that blends mentoring, life skills education and gainful employment in a residential environment.

“The title of the program … says it all,” said Marlene O’Toole, director of the Beacon Center, which houses the school’s ancillary programming including the First Career Community program.

The program can be a one or two-year experience — clients determine how much seasoning they need. The pilot, believed to be the first of its kind nationally, launched in September with three clients: Maja Petras, Daniel Monahan, and Carlton Allen.

Students live together, engage in service and educational opportunities and career coaching sessions. Twice-daily classes in budgeting, time management, interacting with others in concert with more mundane skills such as dishwashing, laundry and taking out the trash burnish autonomy.

The cornerstone of the program, however, is the work experience they enjoy at positions provided by the college’s regional and national corporate partners.

“We’re just trying to get them exposed to as many things as we can,” said Dwight Duckins, who along with his wife Melody serve as resident mentors with the program.

The first step involves clients living on their own.

Allen and Monahan share a three-bedroom townhome in the Carmendy Square Townhome community in Lady Lake, Fla. Petras has a nearby two-bedroom abode the in complex.

For Monahan, the nice digs in a quiet neighborhood at first did little at first to tame the disquieting sense of uncertainly that gripped him, owing to living on his own for the first time.

“At first it was a little terrifying for me,” he said. “There already was so much expected of me, and some of those expectations I was afraid I was unable to live up to.”

Once Monahan locked into the daily swing of his workdays, his comfort level gradually increased.

To ready himself for his gig at The Villages Daily Sun newspaper, where he works as an advertisements inserter, he rises at 3 a.m. He typically clocks in for six hours before coming home for some free time when he said he simply “wings it.”

Similarly, Allen landed a job at Kohl’s department store in Leesburg. He works an early-morning shift too as a jack-of-all-trades — working everywhere from cashier to the stockroom.

“Whenever they need somebody on the floor, I’m one of the people they call,” he said. The job, he said, is “comfortable, friendly, calm, pretty easy going.”

During his time at Kohl’s, Allen earned his forklift driving certification.

“I like the fact I’ve started working,” said Allen, who graduated in 2017 with a degree in interdisciplinary studies. “[The program] teaches me a lot about being on my own. Eventually, we’re supposed to be paying bills and leases and learning how to deal with that. I’m supposed to be getting my own car soon. It’s a lot.”

Like Monahan, Petras is an inserter at The Villages Daily Sun. Outside of work, she rounds out her life experiences as a volunteer working with about 20 preschoolers in the Villages.

“I really enjoy the program and it’s teaching me a lot to be able to learn how to live independently and so I think that’s a very beneficial tool to have,” said Petras, who graduated Beacon with a human services degree.

Though the program is in its infancy, Dwight Duckins has seen evidence that students who learn differently and need a little more time before launching will grow rapidly in the First Career Community’s nurturing environment.

“We’ve noticed a tremendous increase in all three participants, whether it’s making eye-contact when they’re talking to you, whether it’s communicating better, or whether it’s stepping outside their comfort zones in asking for applications or just being more vocal,” he said. “We’re very proud of them for of course accepting the challenge of being in the program and then doing the types of things that we’re recommending for them to do. We think they have raised the bar on what our expectations were in the beginning.”

Petras is inclined to agree.

“I definitely think it would be good for other students especially learning how to be independent and working on their hard and soft skills and communication and things before going out into the workforce,” she said.