By Trent Shadid
Inclusion is a core value at the University of Memphis. TigerLIFE (Learning Independence, Fostering Employment & Education) is the embodiment of that principle.
Founded in 2013, TigerLIFE provides an opportunity for students ages 18-29 with intellectual disabilities to pursue postsecondary education with a focus on building independent living skills and increasing employment opportunities. It is the largest and most ethnically diverse program of its kind in the State of Tennessee.
Among the more than 300 similar programs nationally, TigerLIFE was one of the first to focus on vocational skills and post-program employment. Students enter the program with three primary goals — self-advocacy, independence and employment. Using a systematic approach, TigerLIFE devises the best plan to help each individual reach their aspired goals, transition into gainful employment and live a more meaningful life.
TigerLIFE averages 50-65 students annually split among four cohorts per year. Operating under the UofM Institute on Disability, the 60-hour program culminates in a completion award in Career and Community Studies.
TigerLIFE was designed based on guidelines from a national initiative launched by Think College — an organization dedicated to increasing and improving higher education opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities. The person-centered planning model includes academic and intellectual development, traditional college experiences, independent living skills, internships and externships and a path to sustainable employment.
“TigerLIFE is an awesome program that really helps get you ready for the work world,” said student Steph’en Harris. “I love the people that have put time and love into my participation in TigerLife. I do not know if there was a better opportunity for me, and I appreciate it.”
Each TigerLIFE student receives individual and group mentorship from a staff advocate who is also available to accompany students around campus as needed. The UofM chapter of Best Buddies plans social activities and events for TigerLIFE students.
“I want to thank all of the people who run this program,” said student Keyvion Davis. “You have helped me prepare for living in this world as an independent man.”
The curriculum includes a class for students to visit a variety of businesses and organizations. Participating partners have provided students the chance to experience different environments while gaining first-hand interaction with employees.
All TigerLIFE students begin an internship in their second semester which continues through their third and fourth semesters. Opportunities vary depending on student job interests and availability with nearly 20 campus- and community-based partners having previously given internships to TigerLIFE participants.
Students will have gained 240-300 hours of work experience by the time they complete the program and many gain employment through their internship site. A job placement unit is also available to students upon completion as a further resource to help them become employed.
“I have learned I can clarify exactly what I need and express myself clearly,” said student Aniya Crawford. “TigerLIFE helped me in knowing my rights, believing in myself and advocating for myself. I feel I can be more independent now.”
TigerLIFE hosts information sessions on the UofM campus at least twice a year for prospective students, parents, family members, teachers, counselors, other school personnel and any other interested parties. These information sessions provide an overview of TigerLIFE, expected coursework, financial assistance available and a campus tour. Visit memphis.edu/tigerlife to learn more.
TigerLIFE collaboration on campus recently brought new artwork to downtown Memphis. During the spring 2021 semester, TigerLIFE students participated in a body mapping and mural project along with art majors from the UofM Department of Art.
Over a six-week period, students worked with UofM art history professor Dr. Lucienne Auz, who designed and directed the project, to create body maps that reflected the students’ personal identities. Auz reached out to Dr. Karen Golightly of Paint Memphis to secure a space for the students to transfer their body maps to a large-scale mural on North Front Street.
The project was assisted by professors Lisa Williamson, Kelsey Harrison, Dr. Rebecca Howard, Hamlett Dobbins and Department of Art chair Richard Lou. The mural was a successful and rewarding experience for everyone involved, and similar projects are being discussed for the future.
“The TigerLIFE mural was a wonderful achievement for the students,” Auz said. “They all put in a tremendous amount of effort and truly bonded over the experience. This project demonstrated the importance of bringing different and diverse communities together to share and learn from each other’s knowledge and experiences. The final result was a mural that captures the students’ unique identities and shared creative enthusiasm.”