Two MNLEND Fellows speak to staff member Beth Fondell during orientation in August 2019.

The 12th cohort of ICI’s Minnesota Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (MNLEND) program graduated May 14 in an online ceremony that featured a congratulatory message from U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, among others, and video testimonials from graduates themselves about what the interdisciplinary fellowship program has meant for them.

“No matter what path brought you to this moment, today is a day to celebrate,” Senator Smith said. “The skills you’ve learned will help you build more inclusive communities, where people across all their differences are valued and have control over their lives. As we live through this extraordinary time, the challenges seem harder and the stakes seem higher. These challenges will be bigger for folks already challenged by disability, discrimination and systemic barriers to living the lives they choose. We need your knowledge and experience. We need your voices.”

MNLEND brings graduate students from 16 different academic disciplines across the University of Minnesota together with people who have lived experience with neurodevelopmental disabilities, their family members and community practitioners. In addition to learning about the field, fellows each participate in a final project that advances understanding of some aspect of disability.

“LEND is a highly competitive program and being accepted is an honor in itself,” ICI Director Amy Hewitt said in addressing the graduates. “Your accomplishments this year clearly reaffirm why you were chosen.” Hewitt reiterated Senator Smith’s remarks about the discrimination and additional challenges that people with disabilities now face because of the pandemic, and called on graduates to use their LEND experience to create a more equitable world.

The ceremony also featured an ICI-produced video  (pictured) with interviews of fellows sharing their plans for the future and how they will bring a person-centered lens to their work.

In follow-up interviews, graduates reflected on what the program has meant to them.

“Participating in the LEND fellowship has been one of the most meaningful educational experiences I’ve had,” said Alyssa Mason. “After only a couple months in LEND I was given the opportunity to go to Washington, D.C. with some faculty members and fellows for a conference and to meet with legislators. This opportunity helped me jump straight out of my comfort zone.”

Another graduate, Katie Beard, said: “LEND opened my eyes to the need for system changes (within policy, clinics, medical care, etc.) to create interdisciplinary and collaborative care across providers for individuals with NDDs. One of the most valuable experiences I had in LEND was getting to go to the capitol and speak with senators and representatives to share our personal stories to advocate for change within disability policy. That experience has given me the courage to continue to speak with policy makers to fight for many different types of system changes in our society."

Whitney Terrill said the ceremony was a great opportunity to round out a strong year of learning, collaboration, and community. “After each week of shared learning with our cohort and MNLEND staff and lecturers, it was absolutely wonderful to celebrate our collective and individual accomplishments. I will miss the multi-disciplinary conversations each Thursday and will hope that we have a reunion in the future. Each member of my MNLEND cohort and the ICI staff greatly impacted my life and growth over the past year.”