The U.S. Department of Education has awarded a $2.5 million grant to expand a Western Carolina University program designed to help young adults with intellectual disabilities attend and succeed in college.
The University Participant Program at Western Carolina is scheduled to receive $500,000 per year over the next five years through one of 28 grants announced earlier this month by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
“President Obama has set a goal for America to have the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by 2020,” Duncan said in making the announcement. “These new programs make an important contribution toward that goal by giving students with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to receive a quality postsecondary education with the supports they need to attend, complete and succeed in higher education.”
WCU’s UP Program works to facilitate the transition from secondary school to adult life for persons between the ages of 18 and 25 with intellectual and development disabilities by providing them with a two-year, on-campus living and learning experience.
Young adults in the program work toward successful completion of what project organizers call an “individual plan for college participation.” Each person’s plan focuses on activities and goals involving social, academic, vocational, personal and community activities that are individually designed to address specific interests and future goals related to education, independent living and employment.
The federal grant will enable WCU to expand support services provided by its UP Program, which began as a pilot project in 2007, to five community colleges and one four-year college in Western North Carolina, said project director David Westling, the Adelaide Worth Daniels Distinguished Professor of Special Education.
“Our long-term plan is to make this an on-going program at WCU and at other colleges and universities throughout the state,” Westling said. “We were one of 27 programs in the country funded and one of only four to get the maximum funding. We think this indicates that we have the potential at WCU to develop a nationally recognized model program.”
The additional funding will allow the program at WCU to double the number of young adults it serves from four to eight, and to provide support services for up to eight students at other WNC colleges annually.
Under the program, UP participants live on campus in university residence hall rooms under the same guidelines and policies that apply to all WCU students, said program coordinator Kelly Kelley.
“The on-campus college experiences of our participants are fully integrated and inclusive,” Kelley said. “There are no separate facilities, settings or classes. We recruit WCU students to provide a natural support system for participants who are living in dorms, attending classes, engaging in social and recreational activities, becoming involved in student organizations, and developing friendships and relationships – in other words, the typical college experience.”
Since the inception of the UP Program, two young men have completed the program, and four new participants – two women and two men – are involved in the program for 2010-11.
One of the past participants, a young adult who has cerebral palsy, audited classes, including a seminar in active citizenship in which he helped with fundraisers and service-learning efforts. He became so involved in campus life and activities that he was nominated for the Homecoming Court, said Kelley. He now serves as a mentor and consultant to new UP participants.
In addition, the program has helped WCU students become more aware, understanding and accepting of people who have intellectual or developmental disabilities, Kelley said.
Current UP Program participant Corey Hambrick, a Sylva resident who has a developmental disability, said the program provides educational and social benefits. “The program helps me and teaches me lots of things. It also gives me people to hang out with,” said Hambrick. “It feels great to be in the class with all of the other students.”
WCU is among 27 two- and four-year institutions of higher education or consortia to receive funding under the Transition Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities. A separate grant will fund a coordinating center to support TPSID grantees and similar programs around the country working to transition students with cognitive disabilities into higher education.
The TPSID grantees, located in 23 states, will create or expand programs that focus on academics and instruction, social activities, employment experiences through work-based learning and internships, and independent living. Grantees will provide individualized supports for students and opportunities to be involved in college experiences with their peers without disabilities. Evaluating what works – and what does not work – is a key component of each grant.