Graduation season is all about the promise that awaits young people in their lives. That was on display during a special commencement at UA Little Rock.

Twelve students in the ACCE Program earned diplomas Monday evening. The program is a collaboration between the university and Easterseals, and provides post-secondary education for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Kari Lott said Monday that on her first day of class, “I was a little scared, and excited all at the same time. Thought that the hard work was gonna be hard. It wasn’t, and I accomplished all of my goals.”

This was the second class to graduate from the program, which lasts for one school year. Seven students completed the program in its first year, and Leslie Harms, the program’s coordinator, hopes to have 16 students in the 2018-19 class. “We’re trying to build students, to get them ready for careers, and I think if you have it too large, that takes away from their experience here,” she explained.

The ACCE Program, an acronym for Academics, Community, Career Development, and Employment, seeks to give its students life and job skills, and work experience. They spend part of their day in the classroom, and part working internships, either on campus or in the community.

“My goal was to get a job, eventually open my own restaurant. That’s my goal,” Lott said. “And finish school, and I did.”

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that people with developmental disabilities are only one-third as likely to get a job as those without disabilities. Lott said the toughest part of the program was something that might seem simple to many people. “I’d say it was dressing,” she stated. “It was the dressing. But we made it through! Once we knew how to wear the appropriate clothes, we got the jobs, and we were happy.”

Lott is one of three graduates to have a job already lined up. During an outing in which the students learned how to interpret a bus map, she chatted with an employee at Movie Tavern, which led to her and another classmate getting jobs there. Lott said she likes it because it gives her experience with food service and customer service.

Harms said, in the three weeks since the two students began working there, she has already received word from the theater’s manager than they are among the best employees he has ever worked with.

“It makes me happy for the students,” Harms said. “You know, it’s what they wanted when they first came here. They wanted a job, they wanted to be successful, and to hear that they’re already seeing that success in three weeks of their employment, just speaks for volumes of how much work they’ve done.”

Lott acknowledged that the 12 students have developed close bonds since the start of fall semester. “Well, just, truly, we’re all friends, and we hang out,” she mentioned. “We eat lunch together, we talk about what we’re going to do next, after school, after college. We say we’re all going to work and accomplish everything that we wanted to do in life.”

One of those big goals was achieved Monday night as they accepted their certificates. Lott had a wide grin as she took hers in her hand.

“It was amazing,” she said. “Proud of myself that I did it, and I made it.”

Harms said the ACCE Program is already taking applications for the Class of 2019.