Liz Sanders is living out her dream role as Vanderbilt University’s Program Coordinator of Career Development for the Next Steps Program. An inclusive higher education program founded in 2010, the Next Steps Program is the first of its kind for the state of Tennessee.

“I’ve always had a passion for students with disabilities and for their inclusion,” said Sanders. Following her graduation from UT Knoxville, Sanders pursued a master’s in teaching for special education in Denver, CO, leading her to an inclusive higher education program like the Next Steps Program while in Denver. “I was introduced to this incredible opportunity for students with special needs in the college setting that I’ve never really heard about before.”

With Vanderbilt being one of the only top tier schools with this type of collegiate program, Sanders was “excited because I love working with the adult population, helping them find a career they really desire and deserve, and that they have skills in…It’s my dream job.”

Students of the Next Steps Program receive a ‘Career in Community Studies’ certificate upon program graduation. While they are presently working to get an overall accreditation with all the other programs across the country, Vanderbilt’s four-year program currently holds almost 40 students, with around 10 in each cohort.

As Program Coordinator of Career Development, Sanders works with all things career development for students, teaching courses on everything from interviewing and networking skills, to resume building and technical/computer skills. Sanders also coordinates all junior and senior internships, working to create new partnerships – both on and off campus – for student internship experiences. In addition, she collects data for the program to see exact numbers on how they’re transforming things with inclusion, and the percentage of students who are getting jobs post-graduation.

Sanders noted the importance of transforming lives through inclusion, adding that “our students are in classrooms at Vanderbilt, they’re working alongside other people in a variety of different companies, and they’re getting the needed natural support to be hired when they graduate.”

The importance of the program’s involvement in community-oriented organizations and projects is clear to Sanders. “It’s all about inclusion, right? It’s all about our students getting to be around other people and learning those transferable skills, social skills, and work skills.” She also noted that research points to how significant that inclusion is to people on the other side. To Sanders, it’s about exposing the community to the “potential of our students, and how they can be contributing citizens, just like everybody else.”

The impact is showcased by recently-onboarded Nashville Stars intern, JR Harrison. “The Nashville Stars are making history, being the first baseball team to really honor the Negro Leagues. What a neat thing that JR, our first student with the Stars, is making history as the first person with a disability to be on a club baseball team,” said Sanders.

The Vanderbilt educator emphasized the impact, on both ends, of a student whose passions align with what “the Stars do – and to find an internship opportunity that he can really thrive in, and using all his skills to enhance what the Stars are already doing,” said Sanders.

“Students are getting introduced to people they would maybe never meet before, and the community is getting introduced to this population.”

Sanders is passionate about seeing her students and meeting them where their needs are, understanding what their strengths and skills are, and being able to find these partnerships and internship opportunities that will only help them grow in their skills.

And the passion for things like sports? It’s universal.

If you know of someone who is making a positive difference in our community, please let us know