Two students in conversation inside V C U's Cabell Library.
Janai Santiago, left, dreams of working as an assistant teacher at a preschool or elementary school. Her time in VCU's ACE-IT in College program is helping her make that dream a reality. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Class of 2020: Janai Santiago’s dream is to teach. VCU’s ACE-IT program is helping her achieve it.

The program for young people with intellectual disabilities creates opportunities for students to take college classes, participate in campus activities and prepare for future careers.

Share this story

Though VCU will not hold an in-person commencement ceremony this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the university will host a virtual commencement celebration May 8 and spring graduates will be invited to participate in the university's formal commencement ceremony on Dec. 12. In these challenging times, thousands of students will earn their degrees this spring. These are some of their stories.

Janai Santiago’s dream job is working as an assistant teacher at a preschool or elementary school. Her time at Virginia Commonwealth University’s ACE-IT in College program has given her the experience she’ll need to make that dream a reality.

“[Teaching] is my heart,” she said. “I would love to be able to impact children’s lives.”

ACE-IT in College is an inclusive college program for students with intellectual disabilities. It provides individualized support, allowing students to participate in employment, college classes and campus activities, and helps prepare them to pursue their self-determined futures.

Through ACE-IT, Santiago took VCU courses such as Introduction to Teaching, Human Development, History of the Motion Picture, a dance and choreography course called Improvisation and more. It also facilitated campus employment at VCU’s Child Development Center and VCU’s Office of Continuing and Professional Education, as well as an internship at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

“My favorite time spent at VCU is being a part of the VCU ACE-IT in College program and being with my peers, taking fun classes and hanging out on campus with all my new friends, meeting new people and having awesome professors,” she said. “I really enjoy campus life. I feel very welcome and so blessed to be a part of the VCU family. It has been an awesome experience.”

At the Child Development Center — which provides day care and developmentally appropriate education for the families of VCU faculty, staff and students, as well as the community — Santiago worked for two semesters in a pre-kindergarten classroom, assisting the teachers.

“I would help with getting all the supplies ready for class, getting the center ready,” she said. “I would read to the children [during] story time, help serve breakfast, and take them out for playtime.”

In fall 2019, she worked as a communications assistant for the Office of Continuing and Professional Education, helping to prep materials for events, conduct research and staff events such as grad fairs and a VCU basketball game.

“Janai was a friendly, enthusiastic and conscientious student worker,” said Aimée Walters, marketing manager for the office. “We loved her positive attitude and professionalism.”

During Santiago’s final semester at VCU, she worked at the VMFA helping to support the museum’s education programs for young children.

I really enjoy campus life. I feel very welcome and so blessed to be a part of the VCU family. It has been an awesome experience.

Santiago “represents what ACE-IT is all about,” said Liz Getzel, director of the ACE-IT program, which is a partnership between the VCU Rehabilitation Research and Training Center and the School of Education.

“She was a member of the campus community through her classes and employment,” Getzel said. “As a result, she has flourished and is ready for the next step of securing a job in her chosen career.”

Aliza Lambert, a career support specialist with ACE-IT, said Santiago is an inspiration.

“When I think about Janai and her time as a VCU student and VCU employee, I instantly think of her determination,” Lambert said. “This word is what defines her and infuses excitement and positivity into her academics and her employment. Her reputation has opened many doors, and I have enjoyed watching her walk through every single one of them, determined to make her mark.”

Santiago’s positivity and dedication are remarkable, and she has enthusiastically pursued every opportunity at VCU, said Jaclyn Camden, an ACE-IT business liaison.

“To me, Janai embodies what is means to Make it Real at VCU,” she said. “She has relentlessly pursued her dreams of working in education with determination and enthusiasm. Whether it is in academics, campus employment, service learning or internship, Janai grabs every opportunity at VCU and ACE-IT  she can to reach her goals.”

For other young people with intellectual disabilities, Santiago said she encourages them to consider enrolling at VCU through ACE-IT.

“ACE-IT puts an amazing team together to help me to achieve my goals and dream to be a teacher,” she said. “I was assigned with student coaches and peer mentors on campus. It helped me to believe in myself and become a better advocate for myself. And I learned to use my voice. I found out I am capable of doing anything I dream.”

She added that her time at VCU has reinforced her confidence that belief in one’s self is most important.

“Don't let other people put limitations on you, because you can do anything,” she said. “Don't allow anyone to take your dream away. You can pursue anything you put your mind and heart to. Stay focused and work hard. If you want to go to college, you are truly capable to do so with the ACE-IT in College program.”