VKC celebrates Special Education professor Erik Carter's student mentorship, community impact ahead of departure

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By: Elizabeth Turner

The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) and the Vanderbilt Peabody College Department of Special Education held a joint farewell celebration on Dec. 14 to give their best wishes to longtime faculty member Erik Carter, Ph.D., as he prepares for the next phase of his career.

In addition to his academic appointment as Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair and professor of Special Education, Carter serves as co-director of the VKC University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD). During his tenure at Vanderbilt, he has led or co-led multiple programs including Next Steps at Vanderbilt, TennesseeWorks, Transition Tennessee, and the VKC Disabilities, Religion and Spirituality program, among others.

Starting in 2023, Carter will be joining the faculty at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, as the Luther Sweet Endowed Chair in Disabilities. His focus will be on building a new institute that aims to advance empirical and theological scholarship at the intersections of disability, faith, and flourishing. Through leadership training, resource development, and strategic ministry partnerships, the institute will help equip faith communities to become places of inclusion and belonging for people impacted by disability. In addition, Carter will serve as executive director of the Baylor Center on Developmental Disabilities.

During the farewell celebration, VKC staff, fellow SPED faculty, Next Steps alumni, and former advisees took the opportunity to share the impact Carter has made on their lives.

Special Education chair Joe Wehby, Ph.D., began the remarks, recounting when he met Carter as a graduate student in the Special Education program. Carter returned to Vanderbilt as a faculty member in 2011, and since that time, he has raised the bar on how future special educators should be serving people with disabilities.

“The impact that Erik has made on this department, on this university, in the field of development disabilities really can't be described easily,” Wehby said. “What you've done for the field of developmental disabilities, the only word I can use is ‘transformational.’ I congratulate you and wish you the best of luck.”

Next, Next Steps alumna Cat Bernstein shared how Carter opened doors for her dream job.

“Before coming to Vanderbilt, I did not have many options to choose from. After I graduated high school, I went to work for a bottle washing company,” said Bernstein. “I thought I was going to wash bottles for a career, and I was very unhappy. Then my life changed when I was accepted to Next Steps. I was going to internships, taking VU and Next Steps classes, and going to social events with my friends. Dr. Carter has worked to help students and young adults like me connect with opportunities.”

Shortly before graduation from the program, Carter asked Bernstein of her plans after Next Steps. She expressed interest in working at the VKC. After graduation, Carter offered her a job, which eventually led to her current position as a research analyst within Next Steps and the Department of Special Education.

“Dr. Carter always had faith in me, believing that I could work at Vanderbilt, and he decided to take a chance on me. He helped me learn more about people with disabilities and the workforce, always included me in team meetings and special projects, and connected me with coworkers and who helped me grow,” Bernstein continued. “Thank you, Dr. Carter, for believing in me and other people like me who have a disability.”

Several past students and advisees around the country recorded their own messages, each sharing how their careers were influenced by Carter’s dedication to the field of developmental disabilities.

“I've always appreciated your model of leadership and the way that you poured passion into every aspect of your work. You always kept us grounded in the ‘why’ as the bigger picture of our work and thinking about who our research and our teaching impacts the most,” said Carly Gilson, Ph.D. “Thank you for modeling what a true leader in academia should look like.”

“You taught me how to be a good human in academia, how to keep the people that we serve at the center of our work, and how to always think about relationships and how I make people feel through my work than anything else,” shared Jenn Bumble, Ph.D. “I am forever grateful for the opportunities and the mentorship that you gave me.”

Fellow UCEDD co-director Elise McMillan, J.D., thanked him for his service and shared a quote by Nicholas Hobbs, the founding director of the VKC: “Part of the art of choosing difficulties is to select those that are indeed just manageable. If the difficulties chosen are too easy, life is boring. If they are too hard, life is defeating. The trick is to choose trouble for oneself in the direction of what one would like to become at a level of difficulty close to the edge of one's competence. When one achieves this fine tuning of his life, he will know zest, and joy and deep fulfillment.”

“I think Erik is on that journey,” said McMillan. “On behalf of all the faculty, the staff, the trainees, people with disabilities, families, the many communities who have benefited from your work, we thank you. We wish you and all your family well, we look forward to continued collaborations, and we do hope you find zest and joy and deep fulfillment.”

“The 18-year-old version of me would've never anticipated this path that we've been on these last 30 years,” said Carter in his remarks. “I had an unexpected encounter where I stumbled into some relationships with young people with intellectual disabilities who I probably never would have pursued a relationship with. But in that stumbling, I discovered a friendship that was captivating, character that was enviable, and a faith that was so attractive. I think that was the time when I first experienced deep belonging and real flourishing. It's about capturing the difference it makes when we're truly communities: where every gift, and friendship, and faith really matter. And man, there's been no better place to do that work and no better people to do that work with.

“I'm grateful for my colleagues. The students you saw are so curious and so optimistic and so wicked smart. I've learned so much from them,” Carter continued. “The teams that I've gotten to work with. I mean, your creativity and your dedication and commitment. It's brought these visions we have to life. Things are different in this state, not because of a dream some of us have, but because of the hard work that these teams have done to make that happen. I think about the faculty who give just about everything they have to change our field for the better and to reverse so many things that are wrong in our culture and our society related to disability.”

Carter wrote some parting words for the TennesseeWorks Rise to Work blog. Click here to read “Meaningful Work: Reflecting on Our Pursuits.”

Last Updated: 12/19/2022 8:58:51 AM

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