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Inclusive Education Fosters Ambition

An InclusiveU Student Shares Her Journey of Resilience and Culinary Aspirations
IncluveU students gathered together in Marshall Square Mall

InclusiveU student Shafreya Wilkins ’25 (center) gathers with classmates in Marshall Square Mall following an internship prep seminar. She enjoys the family-like atmosphere of the InclusiveU program.
Shafreya Wilkins ’25 has a vision for the future: operating her own food truck with mini dishes, such as tacos, sliders, truffle fries and slushies for the kids. For Wilkins—who is especially fond of seafood…calamari, oysters, shrimp, sushi… “I love it all,” she says—the food studies program at Syracuse University’s David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics provided a welcomed immersion in the world of cuisine and food systems.

“I always wanted to learn how to cook to be more independent for myself,” says Wilkins, a fan of the Food Network and the Cooking Channel. “I was always interested in food because it was a part of my upbringing. Food always brought us together. We’re an African American family, so we have soul food every Sunday after church, but we always tried different cuisines.”

Seven students in a circle with out stretched hands meeting in the middle

Wilkins and her classmates exchange high fives following their internship prep seminar. She will intern next fall with insurance firm OneGroup, where she’ll gain business and marketing skills that will help her pursue her goal of owning and operating a food truck.
Wilkins will earn a certificate in food studies through InclusiveU—an initiative of the School of Education’s Lawrence B. Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education—that welcomes students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to experience college life in a fully inclusive setting. Through classes, Wilkins improved her cooking skills and enjoyed learning how food is grown, processed and distributed. She created a food blog on Pinterest to post local restaurant reviews and plans to shift to YouTube and feature videos of herself reviewing food experiences in different states when she travels.

Wilkins credits InclusiveU for helping her become more independent. The Nottingham High School graduate and Syracuse native enjoys the peer-to-peer mentoring that has helped her make friends and participate in campus activities. She’s honed her self-advocacy skills and attended Student Empowerment Day in Albany and a national student leadership conference in Colorado Springs, hosted by the Taishoff Center. This fall, she’ll intern with OneGroup, an insurance firm that will provide her with a unique opportunity to learn about marketing and development work and to gain knowledge about insurance and owning a business, supporting her goal of having her own food truck.

Four person panel broadcasting from the JMA Wireless Dome

During Syracuse Giving Day, Kayla Burton G’19 of ESPN (left) interviews InclusiveU student Sam Clark ’24, Wilkins and Beth Myers, Lawrence B. Taishoff Associate Professor of Inclusive Education, in a livestream broadcast from the JMA Wireless Dome.
Wilkins is grateful for all she’s accomplished in and out of the classroom—and it’s a reflection of her perseverance, hard work and faith that have led her to prevail on a difficult journey and inspire others. At age 9, she survived a fire that claimed the lives of her mother and a younger brother. She sustained a traumatic brain injury and fought for her life, spending three months in a coma. During her long recovery, she used a wheelchair and had to relearn everything—how to eat, walk, talk, tie shoes, get dressed. Three years later, she endured another unspeakable tragedy when her father was murdered, leaving her grandparents to raise her and her youngest brother. “I’m very proud of what I’ve overcome,” she says.

We visited with Wilkins to learn more about her and her InclusiveU experience.

Seven students standing together outside in Colorado Springs

Wilkins (left) was part of a group of InclusiveU students who visited Colorado last year to attend the Student Leadership Conference in Colorado Springs, which was hosted by the Lawrence B. Taishoff Center for Inclusive Education. She’s serving on the planning committee for the 2024 conference in Chapel Hill, N.C. Photo courtesy of the Taishoff Center.

How has InclusiveU helped you with your goals?

InclusiveU has helped me have a better understanding of how to maintain a proper goal that I set for myself as far as time management and being prepared for class—and you have to be prepared for life because you never know what’s going to come up. I want to work in food services as a cook in the Syracuse City School District, and then have my own food truck. InclusiveU prepared me and gave me knowledge of how to properly do it. You need a team because everybody needs help. You need the proper systems to work for you.

What experiences have stood out for you?

One of the best experiences I’ve had is traveling to different places, whether it’s Albany or Colorado, advocating for myself. When I came here, I was very shy and didn’t know how to speak up for myself, but now I can speak up for myself and others. My experience at Syracuse University has motivated me to do anything I want to do. It gave me so much confidence that I didn’t have before. I just needed more people around for me to be motivated, to accomplish what I want to accomplish. I think I’m doing that by being here.

Why is it important for you to advocate for yourself?

People think because we have disabilities, we are not capable of learning, and I have experienced that myself. If they tell you that you cannot do it, sometimes you believe it. I believed it for years and was stuck. That’s what took me so long to come to college, because I never saw anybody with a disability go to college. But when one of my friends who graduated from InclusiveU told me about the program, I was interested because I always do research on how to better myself. People with disabilities can do a lot of things. Don’t let anyone limit what you can do. When I started this journey, I knew I could do it.

How has the community aspect of InclusiveU helped you?

We’re a family, we really are. If someone needs help, we are always willing to help. The staff members are amazing. Their doors are always open. We can contact them whenever we need them, and they’re always willing to answer any questions we have, so that’s awesome.

What are the most important things that you want people to know about you?

Even though I have a disability, I still can do whatever someone with a non-disability can do. I know I have to work harder because I have a disability, but I will always prove people wrong and get it done. Another thing about me is my kindness. I’m a very sweet person. Some people take advantage of my kind heart, but I don’t let that stop me from being the person that God created me to be because I will always help anyone in need. My faith is always going to stay strong, no matter what I’m going through.

A Syracuse University story by Jay Cox originally published on May 28, 2024.