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Transition Opportunities at the University of Rochester (TOUR)

Spenser McGuckin sits with 15 undergraduates as Joanne Bernardi, an associate professor of Japanese and of film and media studies, discusses cult movies featuring Godzilla, the mythical Japanese sea monster.

Wearing a blue Rochester hoodie, orange shorts, and neon Nike Hyperdunk sneakers, McGuckin fits right in. The 19-year-old is auditing the class as a second-year participant in the University’s TOUR program.

TOUR stands for Transition Opportunities at the University of Rochester. It’s a program for young adults of ages 18 to 21 with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In addition to participating in college courses, the students are immersed in vocational training, internships, transition and independent living education, and social activities on and off campus.

The program’s long-term goals are competitive employment, an increased sense of community, and improved life skills.

“When I first came here, I was scared and nervous,” says McGuckin, who is on the autism spectrum. “But I got over it quickly.”

The 2015 graduate of Pittsford Mendon High School, about 10 miles southeast of the University, has enjoyed the full college experience at Rochester. While on the River Campus, he eats lunch in the dining halls and studies at Rush Rhees Library. During the 2015–16 academic year, he took an introductory geology course and an art history class. By spring, the once-shy teenager was giving campus tours to other prospective TOUR members. He also was playing lacrosse, a sport he had never tried before, as a way to make friends.

It’s long been recognized that college is a developmental experience, in addition to an academic and preprofessional one. “When people come to college, their main objective is to engage in academic and cocurricular experiences that help them develop the skills and knowledge to get a better job, succeed in life, and develop a career path,” says Catherine Lewis, associate director of School and Community Relations in the Office of Admissions. “That’s the same for TOUR students.”

When he reflects on his experience in TOUR, McGuckin sounds like many students as they reflect on their growth in college. “Some things bother me more than they do other people,” he says, “but I really don’t think about it much. TOUR helped me learn how to work around my differences.”

And it helped him develop confidence and a greater sense of himself as well. “The thing I like best is becoming friends with people I’ve met,” he says. “It makes me feel like I’ve matured a lot.”

His mother, Meg Mackey, agrees that his social skills—an area of difficulty for many people on the autism spectrum—have improved dramatically.

“When Spenser entered TOUR in the fall of 2015, he was reserved and not comfortable meeting new people or encountering new situations,” she says. “That’s part of the magic of TOUR. His self-confidence wasn’t developed just in the TOUR classroom but in Rochester classrooms, through his jobs at St. John’s”—a nearby nursing home—“and Highland Hospital, in Rush Rhees Library hanging out with his friends, and on the field at Fauver Stadium with his lacrosse teammates.”

Reflecting on McGuckin’s TOUR experience, Lewis says he exemplified TOUR’s mission.

“He took courses, immersed himself on campus, and was just genuinely interested in all the University has to offer,” she says.

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