FIU Embrace providing meaningful education to students with developmental disabilities so they can work and live independently.

MIAMI – A local university helps young adults find their inner light. FIU Embrace provides students with developmental disabilities with meaningful education and the tools to work and live independently.

A program one parent says changed the ball game for her son.

“When we came here, it opened the door for everything,” said Sandra Fertil, mother of FIU Embrace student Marcel.

27-year-old Marcel has cerebral palsy. And before enrolling at FIU Embrace in 2019, his mom worried about his future.

“What will happen to him after we are gone,” shared Sandra. “That was a great concern.”

Marcel was born premature, weighing one pound and 13 ounces.

“I’m a miracle baby,” said Marcel. “My mom and dad take very good care of me.”

Despite life’s early obstacles, Marcel grew up with a loving, adventurous spirit. What he needed was an opportunity to show it.

“I used to be very shy and closed off,” said Marcel. “Now, I’m more open.”

Enter FIU Embrace, where Marcel developed a love and passion for cooking and being in the kitchen. He learned how to maneuver around campus by himself, make friends, advance his education, and became a proud FIU Embrace graduate last month, ready to work.

“I’m very confident in myself and my abilities and try not to worry about my disability,” said Marcel. “I’m special in some way.”

The graduating students changing the side their tassel sits to signify their passage.

FIU Embrace Director Nicole Attong says creating confidence is key.

“Where they see themselves and who they see themselves becoming,” added Attong.

The three-year program offers non-degree seeking and degree-seeking tracks, both geared for the individual to embrace their disability, find a career path, and land a job after graduation. Right now, the focus is on the non-degree seeking program.

“Getting the individual to learn more about themselves,” shared Attong. “Fluent in areas you and I take for granted, cooking things and all the things we need to do to get through life.”

It’s precisely why FIU Embrace board member Cuong Do is glad his son Ben enrolled last year.

“He is thriving,” said Do proudly.

Ben is on the spectrum. He lights up a room when sharing his animation projects. Ben plans to pursue a degree in digital animation. Cuong moved his family from New Jersey to South Florida to support Ben’s dream and independence.

“We have to get into the mindset we will have to push them to be independent,” said Do. “The more hands-off, the better.”

“Number one fear is what’s going to happen to my children or who is going to look after my children after I pass. Our answer is they will look after themselves.”

And that’s why Attong believes the single most crucial piece is pairing each student with a thriving student peer.

“See others like themselves who have jobs, enrolled in classes, living on campus in dorms, see themselves reflected in someone who was successful, believe then, for the first time they belong here,” said Attong.

“I see the gleam in Ben’s eye,” said Do. “I see the gleam in the eyes of the other students here at Embrace. That’s true happiness and true pursuit of passion.”

Ben told CBS4 his dream job is to work for Nickelodeon, which happens to be part of our TV family, Paramount Global.

Attong adds community engagement and social networking create pathways for these exceptional students to land jobs after completing the program.

The program accepts young adults 18 through 28. The goal is to expand to 200 non-degree seeking students on campus by 2026.

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