High school can be a rough introduction to adulthood, which for Octavius McCollum meant his path to success as a student would get only rougher.
Diagnosed with autism at age 2, McCollum, 23, of Jackson, earned an Occupational Diploma at Murrah High School but lacked critical credits for a full diploma. “My mom thought it was best for me to just get the Occupational Diploma since it was better for people with special needs like me and who aren’t as advanced as others,” McCollum said.
In 2018, a chance connection between a member of his family’s church and an instructor in the Adult Basic Education program at the Rankin Campus resulted in where he is today – more confident in his social skills and more solid in his job skills.
“Back in high school, I always stayed to myself, plus I was bullied a lot,” he said. “I’m more into small groups of people. I’ve been much more comfortable in the MIBEST program.”
The program allows adult students to train for a job skill while earning their High School Equivalency certificate at the same time. Students prepared to be job-ready in six months to a year, train in high-demand areas and earn national certifications. In 2020, McCollum earned a career certificate in culinary arts and scored well on the Career Readiness Certificate test, a key measuring stick for potential employers who choose to use it. He wants to spread the word of his success to other young adults with special needs who might be uncertain about their future.
“Being in the program has helped me with social skills,” he said. “It usually takes me weeks to get to know people, but here they’re not going to try to mess with me or bully me.”
“And if there’s something I don’t understand, my chef is there for me. Cooking relaxes me and gets me comfortable with my classmates.”
He’s put instructors at ease with the way he’s handled the challenge of college.
“Octavius is always up for any task – no matter how little or small – and he does it with a great attitude,” said Sara Steen, his culinary arts instructor. “He also has great teamwork skills when working with others. In the service industry, that’s a requirement.”
All participants in MIBEST have access to support staff, or navigators, whose job it is to help students focus on their studies by advising them on a wide range of life issues – which often include everything from childcare to transportation to ways to find rental assistance for those in such a situation.
“My navigator and instructor gave me a rides to class after I was involved in a car accident this semester and my car got messed up,” he said. “I liked she was there for me.”
His favorite items to cook up in the kitchen are ones that make him happiest. “My favorite things to make are yeast rolls, raspberry sauce, spaghetti and chicken alfredo,” he said.
“And if there’s something I don’t understand, my chef is there for me.”