With plans to start a similar program at their school, representatives from an Austrian teachers college spent a day-and-a-half on the Western Carolina University campus to get a close look at the University Participant Program, WCU’s two-year, on-campus living-and-learning experience for college-age adults with intellectual disabilities.
The contingent from Die Padagogische Hochschule Salzburg Stefan Zweig (The Salzburg University of Education) participated in a packed schedule of discussions and tours all of Monday, Feb. 6, and for half a day Tuesday, Feb. 7, as they collected information to take back to Salzburg, a city on the German border and near the eastern Alps. The Austrian group included the school’s rector, Elfriede Windischbauer, along with vice rectors Christoph Kuhberger and Wolfgang Plaute and professor of education Sabine Harter-Reiter.
UP Program co-directors David Westling and Kelly Kelley hosted the Austrians as they met with WCU administrators and faculty members, students enrolled in the UP Program and undergraduates who serve as their support students, and parents of former and current UP students.
Westling, who also serves as WCU’s Adelaide Worth Daniels Distinguished Professor of Special Education, said the visit was organized by Plaute, his longtime friend and colleague. A WCU contingent involved in the UP Program, including UP students and support students, visited the university in Salzburg last May to participate in the institution’s International Week, he said.
During a Feb. 6 introductory session, Plaute said the program at the Austrian school is expected to be broader in scope than the WCU program and targeted toward general “special needs” students. “We want to start a program like we see here. We have more questions than answers,” he said.
In addition to the Austrians, the sessions included the involvement of a trio of representatives from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where plans are in the works to start an initiative similar to the UP Program. Deborah Zuver, director of advocacy initiatives for UNC-Chapel Hill’s Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities, said that program could get off the ground in about a year. “We want to model it after UP because this has been an amazing program,” Zuver said.
Activities on Feb. 6 included a panel discussion that brought several UP students and support students together with the visitors to discuss the topic “Why college is important?” UP student Matthew Hessburg from Detroit, Michigan, said his involvement in the program is helping him learn to be independent and make good decisions and gain the skills he needs to be successful. Hessburg said the best aspect of the program is “meeting new friends and making more relationships,” and he outlined for the group his long-term goal – to open a restaurant in his home state of Michigan, and then another one in Brooklyn, New York, a “pretty cool place” where his brother lives.
Logan Kooles, a social work major from Mars Hill, is serving as an intern for the UP Program this semester. Kooles told the visitors he enjoys working with UP students and “seeing the growth that goes on.”
“I love every minute of it,” Kooles said. “They’re not just learning from me. I’m learning from them, and that’s the best aspect of it.”