Grad Challenge consultant encourages participation

June 2 E Grad Challenge SarahMark 3
Senior Sarah Jacobs and Mark Utter ask questions of the student audience following the screening of “I am in Here,” a 30-minute documentary, at a workshop at CVU in May.

By Emily Anderson, CVU Grad Challenge Community Consultant

I was delighted when Sarah Jacobs, a Hinesburg resident and a senior at Champlain Valley Union (CVU) High School, asked me to be a community consultant for her Grad Challenge project. Her specific interest was to see how the arts can help people with disabilities to express who they are firsthand.

As director of Awareness Theater, a theatre troupe of adults with and without disabilities that sheds light on the strengths of people with developmental disabilities, my most recent project involved producing the movie “I am in Here; A view of my daily life with good suggestions for improvement from my intelligent mind.” The creative mind behind the film is Mark Utter, a man who, because of a form of autism, types to communicate. The 30-minute documentary we completed last year has been screened over 30 times, and is followed by a discussion led by Mark, whose words are projected onto a large screen.

When Sarah first approached me about her Grad Challenge project, I asked Mark if he would feel comfortable incorporating her not only into the marketing of the film but the discussions following each screening as well. After an email interview, Mark was more than happy to invite Sarah to participate.

Following that email conversation, Mark and Sarah met weekly. Sarah summed up her participation, “Mark created a film that portrays his struggles in communicating with the world. He cannot say what he is thinking but through facilitated communication he can type his thoughts. From the 45-minute conversations led by Mark after each screening, I compiled a booklet of ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ and the answers they inspired. In addition to the booklet I also made arrangements to bring Mark to CVU for a screening followed by a structured conversation with the audience that we created called ‘more alike than different.’

CVU teacher Lezlee Sprenger invited us to offer the workshop to her students on May 19. The workshop began with a screening of the movie followed by Mark’s words: ‘I am so happy you saw my movie. I am now seeking to find more people to get on board my ship of communication. Not everyone hears my call but one cool lovely kid did and she is now embarking on this adventure with us. My friend Sarah is a dynamic person. She connects with people’s energy and cares about finding connection more than noticing difference. We have enjoyed many fun conversations and out of it we discovered that we are more alike than different.’

Then Mark and I asked the workshop participants to answer a series of questions beginning with ‘Have you ever been at a noisy party and felt alone?’ or ‘Have you climbed up Camel’s Hump?’ Then harder questions ‘What kind of animal do you feel like today? Why?’ And then ‘What inside you needs special attention?’ After compiling the data, the results showed that the groups felt more alike than different, and most notably, for all, Mark was included throughout.”

As Sarah’s community consultant, I truly appreciated her desire to complete this work on behalf of a man who uses the arts to connect people together. She made a meaningful contribution and there is no doubt we will all benefit from her participation.

Now that I have experienced this meaningful collaboration, I encourage as many adults over the age of 21 to become involved in CVU’s Grad Challenge as community consultants. As an expert in the area a student wishes to explore, the responsibilities of a consultant is to: help the student develop a project plan, find helpful resources to read or accessible people to interview, help set up learning experience hours, and, in the end, verify a student’s work. It’s simple and not overly time consuming. And most important, the expertise you lend as a consultant is not only appreciated but also incredibly gratifying.

For more information about CVU’s Grad Challenge please visit For more information about Mark Utter and his documentary “I am in Here,” contact Emily Anderson at