The original story appeared in The Tennessee Tribune.
NASHVILLE, TN — Sporting a soft grey shirt and plaid bow tie, Jamal Underwood proudly, yet shyly, introduced himself to Nashville Mayor Megan Barry. He’s a second year student in the Next Steps Program at Vanderbilt, and is completing his fourth week on the job as an intern in the Davidson County Clerk’s Office. “When contacted by Katrina Nunn of Next Steps and learning about this very significant program, I knew it would be a ‘win-win’ opportunity for us,” said Brenda Wynn, Davidson County Clerk.
Jamal is totally focused on his work. The 20-year old Next Steps at Vanderbilt participant received his well-earned Certificate of Completion on April 26, and served as the graduation speaker. He will begin working as a permanent employee with the Davidson County Clerk’s Office in early May.
The Next Steps Program at Vanderbilt is an inclusive higher education program committed to providing students with intellectual disabilities, transformational postsecondary education in academics, social and career development, and independent living, while honoring equality, compassion, and excellence in all endeavors.
Tammy Day, director of the program explains, “Life is so sweet when the outcomes match the dreams. This is what has occurred with Jamal attending college and growing in every possible way, completing internships that informed and built upon his career interests, and consummated with a final community internship that is now becoming a true job after college.”
This program reveals that everybody benefits. “We are proud of Jamal and so thankful for our community partners at the Davidson County Clerk’s Office for recognizing what Jamal can bring to the workplace,” she added.
“I am excited about the opportunity to partner with Next Steps at Vanderbilt and even more excited that Jamal will be joining our staff,” said Wynn.
On any given day, Jamal’s assignments include processing an average of 140 pieces of mail, which is exceptional, given that most folks typically don’t process that much work. He catalogues the mail and inputs the data into the system, ensuring proper identification and specification to each item. He then prepares the mail for distribution and generates a computer-based report. “He is conscious and extremely tedious with his work,” said Rachel Austin, Jamal’s DCCO supervisor.
“It is important to me to do good work,” said Jamal. One of his goals is to be more proficient in computer trouble shooting skills.
Jamal’s supervisor at Vanderbilt, Katrina Nunn, proudly speaks of Jamal’s success. “His experience at the Davidson County Clerk’s Office, gives him a special opportunity to show he has sound, demonstrated experience.” Colleagues at the Clerk’s office describe Jamal as a great employee, as well as an advocate for his peers. Nunn further explained, “This wonderful opportunity Jamal has at the County Clerk’s office not only benefits Jamal by giving him a chance to tap into all his vocational strengths (including being a support to others and having incredible typing skills), but also has an impact on the community as a whole. By supporting an inclusive work environment, the County Clerk’s office creates an atmosphere that reflects acceptance and opportunity.”
It is clear that The Next Steps Program at Vanderbilt opens doors and minds. “One of my goals since becoming Davidson County Clerk has been to embrace diversity within the office. Having the opportunity to hire a data entry clerk of Jamal’s caliber (90 words per minute with no errors) benefits him, the County Clerk’s office and the city as a whole,” said Wynn. “It’s a win-win-win.”