In 2017, the University of Georgia launched Destination Dawgs to help students with intellectual disabilities gain the skills and confidence to prepare for independence and careers after graduation. Through the program, students immerse themselves in all UGA has to offer, not only gaining a fulfilling academic experience, but also a rewarding social experience.
To help cultivate an even deeper connection with UGA, Destination Dawgs partners with the university’s Mentor Program to pair students with intellectual disabilities with alumni, faculty and staff mentors. The experience gives students insight and advice on life during and after UGA.
It was through the UGA Mentor Program that alumnus Matt Cianfrone (AB ’12) met Jesse Pearson, a student in Destination Dawgs.
Jesse has been at UGA for about a year and will begin his third semester this fall. He is loving the campus experience, especially when he takes new classes and meets new friends.
One of his favorite pastimes includes playing intramural basketball at the Ramsey Student Center, where he also is an intern. Jesse is passionate about basketball and hopes to become a coach for the sport after graduation.
Jesse contacted Matt through the UGA Mentor Program platform after seeing on Matt’s profile that they had a mutual interest in basketball. The two exchanged emails and found that they made a good mentoring pair since Jesse wanted advice about coaching and Matt is a coach.
“Matt is a wonderful mentor,” Jesse said. “He was always kind and ready to help. We have the same interests. He seems like he is a great coach, and he knows what is expected of him and how he can help others.”
Matt hails from Middlesex County in New Jersey. His hometown is small–just a single square mile–and the local high school comprising only 200 students. Attending UGA, where a single lecture hall can fit that many people, was an enormous shock to Matt.
Despite the drastic change in environment, Matt loved his time on campus. And although he has since returned to New Jersey to teach and coach basketball, he’s still connected to UGA and is eager to help students identify their passions.
“Any way I could stay connected to campus was a big thing for me, so I jumped at the opportunity to sign up for the Mentor Program,” Matt said. “If I can help a couple people here and there, it is definitely worth it.”
After becoming mentor and mentee, Matt and Jesse often talked over the phone. Despite Matt living nearly 800 miles away from Athens, the two formed a meaningful connection, and Matt provided Jesse with valuable advice.
“I learned so much from Matt and from his experience,” Jesse said. “Matt encouraged me to keep pursuing coaching. He explained that even if I do not stick to coaching, it would be reasonable to still find a career related to sports and the field I am passionate about.”
As Matt mentored Jesse, giving him advice and telling him the steps that he took to become a coach, he found himself reflecting on his own journey. Their conversations allowed for both Matt and Jesse to grow and learn from each other, all while sharing their love of basketball.
“The entire process was wonderful,” Matt said. “I already cannot wait to continue on as a UGA mentor, talking to more students and helping in any way that I can.”
Interested in connecting with students and contributing to their success? Sign up to be a UGA Mentor today! You’ll be amazed at how much you get back from giving in this way.