Three students enrolled in Western Carolina University’s University Participant Program for people with intellectual disabilities have joined students and faculty on a May travel course to study programs and services for adults with developmental disabilities in England and Ireland.
“Nearly two years ago, recent UP Program graduate Kenneth Kelty inquired whether there were any international study opportunities for UP participants,” said Seb Prohn, UP Program academic coordinator. “The answer was ‘not yet.’”
Kelty had exposed a gap in an otherwise fully inclusive college experience. The UP program is a two-year, on-campus living and learning experience at WCU for college-aged persons with intellectual disabilities that aims to facilitate transition of participants from secondary school to adult life with education, employment and independent living.
Kelty’s question prompted Prohn; David Westling, the UP Program director and the Adelaide Worth Daniels Distinguished Professor of Special Education; and Kelly Kelley, assistant professor of special education and UP program consultant; to propose a study abroad opportunity for students with and without special needs.
Through the resulting travel course, which is taking place during WCU’s May mini-mester, undergraduate and graduate students and UP Program participants are exploring in England and Ireland the attitudes, laws and policies, living arrangements, and employment and postsecondary education options relevant to adults with developmental disabilities.
Students are participating in seminars, hearing lectures and meeting with people from organizations ranging from the Westminister Society for People with Learning Disabilities to the National University of Ireland Maynooth. They also are meeting with John Kubiak, a teaching and learning officer at the National Institute for Intellectual Disability at Trinity College Dublin and coordinator of the institution’s certificate in contemporary living.
In addition, the group is presenting information about WCU’s UP Program at organizations including CHANGE, a national human rights organization in England led by people with learning disabilities and that employs people with learning disabilities to work alongside and at equal pay with people who are not learning disabled.
“All cross-cultural experiences allow individuals to hold a mirror up to themselves, their society and their practices,” said Kelley. “By learning about daily experiences of English and Irish citizens with intellectual disability and the services they are or are not receiving, students have an opportunity to think critically about the strengths and limitations of American services for adults with intellectual disability.”
Prohn also said WCU’s UP participants have the opportunity to share their experiences to international audiences “rather than having peers or professionals tell their stories.”
“By modeling self-determination, empowerment and inclusion, participants will directly show the benefits of college participation,” he said.
Will Darling, an UP participant from Asheville, said he couldn’t wait for the trip and was looking forward to meeting new people and friends as well as seeing castles and shows.
For Michael Kozicki, an UP participant from Georgia, getting to visit England and Ireland was “one of the greatest feelings that I am experiencing. To me, it sounds fun. I never went on a trip like that before.” He was particularly excited about seeing where the Beatles were from, visiting Trinity College in Ireland and seeing what a real pub looks like, he said. In addition, he stayed up late to complete pre-travel assignments, which included an information-gathering scavenger hunt, videos and readings.
Michael Kozicki’s father, Keith, said going to Ireland has been a long-term dream of Michael’s because of their family’s historical ties to the country.
“This is a phenomenal opportunity for him, and we couldn’t be more grateful,” said Keith Kozicki.
He and Michael’s mother, Leslie, credited the UP Program for experiences that enabled their son to achieve a level of independence necessary to participate in such a trip.
“This is quite a milestone,” said Leslie Kozicki.
The inclusion of UP Program participants was one of the reasons Maggie Alexander, a senior from Asheville majoring in communication sciences and disorders, chose to participate. In addition to wanting to visit Europe, she has an interest in continuing to learn with and from UP Program participants.
Meanwhile, Victoria Blount, a junior from Asheville majoring in inclusive education, said she applied to participate in the course because she wanted to experience life outside of the United States and learn more about people with special needs and associated services in other countries.
“I’m thrilled to be able to take part in this trip,” said Blount, who has gone to lunch, the gym and done homework with UP participants. “I’ve always been interested in working with students with special needs. I want to be an advocate for the children that don’t necessarily have a voice.”
For more information about WCU’s Office of International Programs and Services, visit ips.wcu.edu. For more information about the UP Program, visit up.wcu.edu. For more information about WCU’s College of Education and Allied Professions, visit ceap.wcu.edu.