For the first time, students from the FUTURE program went through sorority recruitment and received bids to join sororities.
FUTURE is a program on campus that strives to help students with intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD) transition from high school life to college life and adulthood.
UT sophomores Zoe Messer and Faith Irwin, along with senior Elise McDaniel, became the first three students from the FUTURE program to accept bids and become members of sororities.
The unique story has garnered national attention. The Today Show’s Allison Slater Tate wrote a story on the recruitment of FUTURE members after a video of the students opening their bid cards become popular on TikTok, gaining nearly 900,000 views and over 150,000 likes.
“This week, a TikTok video from the FUTURE program at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville showed a different side of sorority bid day,” Tate wrote. “Students with disabilities were offered invitations to join Greek chapters there for the first time this year.”
Junior Flora Mae Ayers, a member of the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority, worked with both FUTURE and Greek life to help make this year’s rush possible.
“From the beginning of my vision, I wanted the FUTURE students to have the most natural recruitment experience as any woman,” Ayers said. “While some barriers had to be broken down to make such happen, I am glad to say the FUTURE women who received a bid participated in recruitment each and every day and earned their way through based on themselves alone, which is something I could not be more proud of them for.”
“Once in their chapters, FUTURE women have the choice to participate in any activity desired, which is what I have strived for since the beginning,” Ayers said.
Ayers also went on to note how hard recruitment is for everyone hoping to receive a bid, but the girls from FUTURE managed it with “grace and poise.”
The process to try and bridge the gap between Greek Life and FUTURE started about a year ago. Ayers joked that she could sum up the process in “about 60 seconds.” It required a lot of communication with FUTURE staff and Panhellenic. There was also a workshop of sorts to help prepare the women of FUTURE for recruitment.
Emma Burgin, coordinator of the FUTURE program, spoke out about inclusivity on campus for IDD students and how there is still much to do.
“There are a lot of ways we hope to grow the FUTURE Program itself — larger student body, more mentors, campus wide training for working with students with IDD, involvement in all aspects of campus life to the full extent,” Burgin said. “But ultimately, I hope that FUTURE is setting a tone for a more inclusive campus for all marginalized groups. We always say, ‘diversity is a fact, inclusion is an act.’ I hope we are showing that inclusion truly is an act of love. We need to break down these barriers to allow for both sides — students with and without disabilities — to benefit from each other.”
FUTURE wants to help bring more focus to inclusivity on college campuses in regards to students with different disabilities and they aim to help improve the quality of life for their students. The first FUTURE students were admitted in 2011, and this year marks their 10th year on campus.
They are also currently in the third year of their Independent Living Program. This program allows them to share life skills with their students. Currently, the program has 14 students who are on their own for the first time ever, some in a dorm and some in apartments near campus.
The program recruits nationally and locally for their students. They look for students “who want to go to college, pursue a career and embody the Volunteer Spirit,” Emma Burgin, the coordinator for the program, said.
If students want to get involved, there is a chance to volunteer as a mentor to the FUTURE students. Students can submit their information here.