Helping local high school students with developmental and communication disabilities gain valuable work experience is the aim of a program set to launch this fall on the University of Guelph campus.

Project SEARCH will offer internships to Upper Grand District School Board and Wellington Catholic District School Board students to provide them with key school-to-work training needed to enter the workforce while also helping U of G students learn how to be inclusive leaders.

Janet Doner smiles for a portrait while standing agasint an ivy-covered wall
Janet Doner

A multinational program that began in 1996, Project SEARCH now has more than 750 sites worldwide. This will be the first site in Guelph and at a Canadian university.

“This partnership benefits everyone involved,” said Janet Doner, manager of campus and community integrated learning in the Experiential Learning Hub and business liaison for Project SEARCH Guelph.

“Not only will participants build employability skills, but U of G students will develop inclusive mentorship and leadership skills through various opportunities to work alongside Project SEARCH participants and U of G will have the opportunity to create a more inclusive workplace by identifying and removing barriers to success.”

Because transitioning from school to work can present a challenge for students with communication and intellectual disabilities, the program offers a supported pathway to the workforce.

Participating in Project SEARCH is part of the broader strategy of U of G’s Experiential Learning department to support students with disabilities through work-integrated learning.

The work builds on the newly launched WorkAbility pilot that supports 20 U of G students in securing paid summer work experiences and the Campus Friends program that pairs young adults with developmental disabilities from Community Living with U of G student mentors on campus.

Building the next generation of inclusive leaders

Several strategies to engage U of G students in Project SEARCH and support their career readiness are in the works, including the development of mentorship training for U of G students who are in volunteer and paid positions alongside Project SEARCH participants.

Additionally, the Career Education Peer Helper team will be able to extend their resume and interview preparation support to participants. A specific mentorship program for U of G students similar to the Campus Friends structure will also be developed in collaboration with the Project SEARCH teacher and skills trainer. These opportunities will support students to develop stronger interpersonal communication, social and cultural agility, and leadership skills that are essential in creating inclusive workplaces.

“We’re thrilled to be able to bring Project SEARCH to the University of Guelph,” said Doner. “Experiential learning is a core part of our teaching and learning philosophy and we know first-hand the incredible value it can offer.”

First cohort to start Fall 2024

This June, a Project SEARCH staff member will come to the U of G campus to help identify internship opportunities. Possible placements may be in Hospitality food outlets, on-campus clinics, retail locations, administration, athletics or labs.

The first cohort of eight to 10 students will begin the 10-month program in the fall, completing three internship periods in which they will gain more than 700 hours of hands-on work experience in in-demand roles in the labour market.

After their internship, participants will continue to be supported in their transition into the workforce by March of Dimes Canada vocational rehabilitation counsellors.

Parents of high school students interested in learning more about Project SEARCH are invited to an info night on Feb. 6.