On Tuesday, February 26, 2013, world-class faculty, leading surgeons, undergraduates, and students with special needs from the Pathway at UCLA Extension program gathered together in the Charles E. Young Research Library as part of the Three Pillars, One University series. The event presented the opportunity for Pathway students to engage with faculty through fifteen-minute hands-on research presentations.
At a previous Three Pillars, One University, I had the pleasure to speak with Sean Cantwell, a fourth year Physiology Science student and a co-director of the Circle of Friends chapter at UCLA.
What is Circle of Friends and your role in the club?
In 1999, Circle of Friends was created on the campus of Santa Monica High School, when one student with Down’s Syndrome was observed sitting alone at lunch. Although he was fully included in general education classes, he often felt lonely at lunch, a time when all other teenagers on his high school campus were eating with friends. Circle of Friends built a “circle” of 2-3 non-disabled peers around him daily and he became fully woven into the fabric of his campus. That was the beginning of Circle of Friends. Today there are 52 chapters of Circle of Friends in California.
The Circle of Friends chapter at UCLA pairs Bruin and Pathway students as friends in hope of establishing lasting friendships. The Pathway at UCLA Extension is a two-year certificate program for students with intellectual and other developmental disabilities, offering a blend of educational, social, and vocational experiences on and around the UCLA campus. As a co-director along with Matt Rosenstein (a Volunteer Center Fellow), I help set up quarterly events and biweekly meetings between these friends. UCLA students in the chapter commit to an hour-long meeting with their friends every two weeks and one meeting per quarter with the organization. During the meetings, UCLA students and Pathway students spend time with each other just like normal friends do through movies, dinner, and games. Through these events and meetings, we hope to spread the message of inclusion, especially for students with special needs.
How did you first become involved?
During my freshman year at UCLA, I was introduced to Matt and CoF’s two amazing program directors (Barbara Palilis and Ruth Punt) through a high school friend who was a sophomore at UCLA at the time. One day, my high school friend also invited me to join her when she was meeting with her CoF friends at the Coffee Bean in Westwood. I tagged along and ended up with lots of funs. At the end of the day, we all exchanged information and from that point on, I was hooked! I couldn’t get enough of Circle of Friends!
I wanted to play a bigger role in CoF. So that summer, I decided to become a Fellow for CoF’s Summer Circle Program, a program for students with disabilities from Santa Monica High School. It quickly became evident to Barbara and Ruth how much CoF meant to me. I was coming early, staying late, and making a 1.5 hour commute every day to get there. At the end of the summer, they asked me to join Matt as the co-director of the UCLA chapter of CoF. I jumped at the opportunity and have been a major proponent of the CoF mission ever since. I can’t thank Barbara and Ruth enough for providing me the opportunity to become a member of CoF because my experiences as a part of the program have been some of the most meaningful moments of my college career and my life.
Why do you think programs such as CoF and events such as Three Pillars, One University are important?
I think UCLA is an incredible place because there are so many people simultaneously doing so many amazing things. You can walk into almost any building on campus and find an expert in some field. Yet how often do all of these individuals come together? I believe that programs like CoF and events such as Three Pillars, One University serve their greatest purpose by uniting groups of people with very different backgrounds. Bringing together individuals like CERN physicists, Fulbright scholars, and students with special needs allows everyone involved to meet others who they may not normally have a chance to meet. In this group forum, people have an unparalleled opportunity to learn from each other, spread the message of inclusion, and just have fun.
What have you learned from the Three Pillars, One University events and CoF?
I’ve learned a TON from Circle of Friends – patience, communication skills, and leadership are just a few. But I think more than anything, I’ve learned about the importance of inclusion. By taking the time to listen to what someone else has to say and by showing them that you earnestly care about who they are and what they think, you can make a tremendously profound impact on someone else’s life. The volunteers I’ve worked with, the supervisors I’ve learned from and the new friends I’ve made as a part of Circle of Friends have been spectacular. Through CoF, and especially through events like Three Pillars, One University, I’ve come to realize that whether you’re a neurosurgeon, a world-class athlete, or a UCLA student with Autism, we’re all people. We all have ideas, aspirations, and beliefs. And regardless of those things that seem to separate us, we all deserve to be included into each other’s circle of friends.