Academy provides training to students with disabilities.

Tressa Kelly knows what it's like to be underestimated.

Kelly, the first lady of University of South Carolina Upstate, didn't let the fever that took most of her hearing when she was 3 stop her from achieving her goals. The wife of USC Upstate president Brendan Kelly earned her doctorate in communication from Wayne State University and teaches English and public speaking at Wofford College.

She told a group of 150 graduates of the Career Academy for Students with Disabilities not to let anyone define the scope of their dreams, either.

"I never bought into arguments that I couldn't keep up," Kelly said during her remarks at the commencement ceremony for the initiative of the S.C. Vocational Rehabilitation Department, held in late July in conjunction with USC. " Everyone is this room has more strengths than weaknesses. Focus on developing your strengths."

The July 30 graduation capped a four-day program, themed Power Up, that taught students with physical, emotional and cognitive disabilities workforce preparation skills. Participants in the first-year program practiced filling out job applications, shadowed area employers and learned to network.

"I had a great experience," said Jordan Williams, who visited USC's College of Nursing. "I loved the mannequins and their capabilities. That was very fun to me. But you have to wash your hands a lot."

Williams, who said she learned interviewing tips at the academy, is attending Claflin University with plans to major in elementary education and teach English and math.

"I love both," she said. "They work together."

Felicia Johnson, S.C. Vocational Rehabilitation commissioner, said the academy came about as part of the department's mission to provide services to students with disabilities required by the federal Workforce Innovation & Opportunity Act. Johnson's department reached out to USC, which created a curriculum and provided logistics for the academy, including personalized iPads.

"I have been completely amazed," Johnson said before presenting certificates to academy graduates at the W. Hootie Johnson Performance Hall at USC's Darla Moore School of Business. "This program thoroughly exceeded my expectations. The students have benefited so much. They've been exposed to so many things. They've learned skills that are going to help them make career decisions. It's been fantastic."

The academy serves a dual purpose, Johnson said, providing employers with a pipeline to capable workers.


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