A woman with a pen in her hand looks through a stack of paper with another woman.
A’Shauntae Nious, an ACE-IT in College graduate and a finance assistant in VCU's Division of Student Affairs, works with Asia Higgs, her supervisor and a finance operations officer. Photo by Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing.

Inclusivity in the workplace: These ACE-IT in College graduates are now valued VCU staff members

“Overall, my experience with ACE-IT has definitely helped me tremendously with getting ready for the world of work. I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” said Teddy Robbins, an ACE-IT graduate who works at VCU.

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As a finance assistant in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Division of Student Affairs, A’Shauntae Nious provides clerical and administrative assistance three days a week in the Finance Service Office that provides business services to a number of departments that support VCU students.

“I love my job,” Nious said, saying it gives her the freedom to learn and enhance her skills, be a valued team member, and help support VCU students and the university.

Nious graduated in 2019 from ACE-IT in College, an inclusive learning and training program at VCU for transition-age adults with intellectual disabilities. With individualized support, ACE-IT students participate in employment opportunities, college classes and campus activities. Part of the VCU Rehabilitation Research and Training Center in the School of Education, ACE-IT’s goal is to prepare the students to pursue fulfilling careers in their fields of interest.

Nious is one of three ACE-IT graduates currently working at VCU.

“A’Shauntae has been a great addition to our team,” said Asia Higgs, A’Shauntae’s supervisor and a finance operations officer in the Division of Student Affairs. “She’s given me new perspectives on how we do things and how we could make our system better. Sometimes all people need is a chance, and when you do, you see they can thrive in any environment.”

Of all ACE-IT students who have graduated since the program started in 2010, 90% have been hired, landing jobs at Richmond Region Tourism, VCU Medical Center, the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, The Broadberry, The Camel, Four Paws Pet Resort, Westminster Canterbury Richmond, the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, and many other employers in the Richmond region.

“ACE-IT is a pipeline to careers and to a self-determined future,” said Aliza Lambert, a career support specialist with VCU’s Center on Transition Innovations and ACE-IT in College. “Isn’t that what we want for all students?”

Twenty-nine students have graduated from ACE-IT over the past decade. The program’s research has found that each of the employed graduates earned at least minimum wage, but with a significant number of them earning higher.

“ACE-IT in College is an inclusive VCU experience that helps students gain the knowledge, skills and tools to find success in interest-driven careers after graduation,” said Jaclyn Camden, a business liaison with ACE-IT. “Preparing students for the workforce is a goal of college and ACE-IT is no different. We are very proud of our 90% employment rate.”

VCU’s ACE-IT graduate employees are a reflection of the university’s commitment to inclusivity in the workplace, said Cathleen Burke, assistant vice president for human resources.

“VCU is a place where people from diverse backgrounds come together to share their knowledge, skills and abilities with one another in the pursuit of learning and growth,” Burke said. “As a large employer in the Richmond region, VCU is committed to celebrating diversity, ensuring equity and championing the inclusion of all members of the university community. This is a place where all voices are valued and heard.”

Teddy Robbins, another ACE-IT graduate, recently began working as a clerical assistant in the grants and contracts accounting and effort reporting office of the University Controller’s Office. In his role, Robbins performs tasks such as organizing the supply closet, tracking files for destruction, filing and other duties as needed.

ACE-IT’s support, he said, was invaluable as he looked for a job.

A portrait of a man in a blue shirt, sitting down with his arms crossed.
ACE-IT graduate Teddy Robbins is a clerical assistant in the grants and contracts accounting and effort reporting office of the University Controller’s Office. Contributed photo.

“They helped me be more confident [with the] interview process. Also they have taught me a lot about things that are expected at a place of employment, such as showing up on time, having a positive attitude, good communication, and basically just having a great reputation and being someone other people want to work with,” Robbins said. “They have also helped me with resume building and writing cover letters.”

As part of ACE-IT, students gain employment skills by working at local businesses and organizations. Nious had an internship at Bellemeade Community Center, and also worked at VCU as an administrative assistant in student leadership and civic engagement, and as office support for VCU's Partnership for People with Disabilities. Robbins worked at Morrissett Funeral and Cremation Service, where he worked at the front desk, answered phones and helped out with other tasks, as well as at Firehouse Theatre, where he helped build sets, served as an usher, helped with maintenance and cleaning, and more.

“I learned a lot about job responsibilities and how to make myself look good in any industry,” Robbins said. “Overall, my experience with ACE-IT has definitely helped me tremendously with getting ready for the world of work. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Robbins’ supervisor, Priscilla B. Clayborne, office manager in the grants and contracts accounting and effort reporting office, said Robbins has done a “wonderful job thus far and is a great communicator.”

“Teddy is very thorough and has great attention to detail,” she said. “He listens and follows through each task with diligence and accuracy. I’m glad Teddy’s working with us in [grants and contracts].”

Robbins is passionate about the performing and visual arts – his dream is to perform on Broadway one day – and says one of his favorite things about his job at VCU is that Clayborne encourages him to use his creativity at work.

For Nious, one of her favorite parts of working at VCU is the flexibility provided by teleworking.

“What I love about my job is that I can work from home, and going into the office is not mandatory. I love the fact that I have that choice,” she said. “I also love how VCU is so family oriented. Every other Monday we have a virtual huddle meeting where we talk about different topics and get to laugh at the funny jokes we tell.”

Nious and Robbins illustrate how ACE-IT strives to provide students with the academic, career and campus opportunities needed to obtain and thrive in a career after graduation, Camden said.

“A’Shauntae and Teddy both took on those opportunities and worked diligently towards their goals while in college,” she said. “They were open to the experience and took on each challenge with determination. A’Shauntae and Teddy both exemplify not only what it means to be an ACE-IT student, but a VCU Ram. This is why it is so exciting to see them employed as VCU Rams.”

ACE-IT’s overarching goal is to equip students to pursue their self-determined future, Lambert said.

“For A’Shauntae, this includes a work culture where she is valued and flexibility so she can work from home. A’Shauntae is working to get her driver’s license so she can reach her next goal of driving herself to work,” Lambert said. “For Teddy, his self-determined future includes multiple careers. His position at VCU allows him to have a day job that is valuable, but also allows him to pursue his career goal of acting.”

Both Nious and Robbins said they would recommend ACE-IT to other young people with intellectual disabilities who are interested in pursuing college and a career.

Portrait of a smiling woman.
A’Shauntae Nious, an ACE-IT in College graduate and a finance assistant in VCU's Division of Student Affairs. Photo by Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing.

“I want to give a big [thanks] to ACE-IT for never giving up on me, for supporting me and for helping me find the best job that fits for me,” Nious said. “It really shows me, or anyone else who applies to ACE-IT, that they want to see you strive for a great job that you love. I’m also proud of myself for never giving up, and applying to different jobs. There were times I wanted to give up, but I kept on pushing and now I have the best job that I can never not be thankful for.”

Nious and Robbins show future ACE-IT applicants what’s possible at VCU, Lambert said.

“The main message I would like for young people with intellectual disabilities who might be interested in ACE-IT to hear is: VCU believes in you,” she said. “We have over 40 campus partners that we work with to develop campus jobs and we have three departments that have hired ACE-IT graduates.”