With support from a $2.5 million federal grant, the University Participant Program helps young people with disabilities experience college life


You don’t have to spend much time on Western Carolina’s campus before noticing its bustling, diverse student body. Stroll through Hunter Library and you’re likely to see students of varying ages, ethnicities and races huddled around tables with coffees, books and laptops. Pop into Courtyard Dining Hall for a bite to eat and you might meet a young Muslim student from Saudi Arabia, stand in line behind a nontraditional graduate student from Raleigh, or sit across the table from an American Indian student from the Qualla Boundary. At WCU and elsewhere across the nation, the student body has become increasingly diverse, especially during the Generation Y era. Until recently, however, one group of students was not likely to be seen on college campuses – people such as Aaron Hoefs, who has a developmental disability. “I never thought I’d be sitting in class myself, but I’d always wanted to know what it was like,” said Hoefs, 26.

Now he can. Thanks to WCU’s University Participant Program, backed by a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Hoefs and a handful of other 20-somethings with intellectual and developmental disabilities now live, study and work part-time jobs at WCU. They’re experiencing college – much like any college freshman would – by living in residence hall, eating their meals at the dining hall, attending classes, studying for exams and making new friends.

UP Program participants take up to 10 hours of classes per semester and are part of a decade-long trend to increase educational opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, which can include cerebral palsy and some forms of autism. The program is part of a national movement to include students with such disabilities on college campuses, said coordinator Kelly R. Kelley ’03 MAEd ’06, whose outspokenness for the inclusion of students with developmental disabilities at WCU led to the program’s pilot project three years ago. “Our long-term plan is to make this an ongoing program at WCU and at other colleges and universities throughout the state,” said David L. Westling, UP Program director and the Adelaide Worth Daniels Distinguished Professor of Special Education.

Organizations such as Think College!, which advocates postsecondary education for people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities, contend that until recently people with such disabilities had limited educational opportunities after high school. However, as these students had more inclusive experiences at school and in the community, they began to dream of attending college, just like their classmates, siblings and neighbors. Now young people with intellectual disabilities, with help from families and educators, are finding ways to make their college dreams a reality.

The federal government also has stepped up to assist the college goals of people with intellectual disabilities. To ensure that students with these disabilities have access to a college education, Congress approved in 2008 the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which allows students with intellectual disabilities to qualify for college loans and work-study funds.

Although students in the UP Program do not earn college credit, the program provides two years of customized educational, social and professional programming previously unavailable to this population of students. “The program is designed to work backward based on the student’s post-UP Program independent-living and employment goals,” said Kelley.

A Program of Inclusion

Applicants to the program complete a rigorous admission process and are required to submit an undergraduate admission application, résumé and three letters of recommendation, as well as a video of themselves explaining their goals and why they’re interested in the program. Staff from the UP Program and the offices of Admission and Residential Living meet to review and rate each applicant based on how much they believe he or she will contribute to the university.

“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 residence halls, 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.”

Program participants enjoy a fully integrated and inclusive
college experience. Here, UP student Aaron Hoefs takes in
a football game with UP staff member Amber Anderson.

Since the program’s inception, two young men have completed the program, and four participants – two women and two men – are currently involved in the program. The number of participants is expected to double during the next five years.

Hoefs, whose background includes serving as Haywood County’s spokesperson for the Special Olympics, is in his first year of the program and says that his speech class has been the most difficult. “I got the hang of it after a couple of weeks with the help of Amanda England, one of the student volunteers,” he said. “But understanding the professor and getting up and doing speeches was tough in the beginning.”

On the other side of the classroom podium, faculty also anticipated a few challenges in the inclusion of UP Program participants in their classrooms. Peter Savage, assistant professor in the School of Stage and Screen, had reservations last semester about whether Anna Grace Davis, an UP Program participant in his theater appreciation class, would be accepted by the other students. “I was a little worried that the other students would not be supportive of her, because I grew up in a time when students with special needs were not integrated,” said Savage. “But what I found was that the students were overwhelmingly accepting and respectful toward her. That was huge for me.”

Savage said he did not adjust his teaching style for Davis. “I try to teach different learning styles – auditory, visual, kinesthetic – for all of my students,” he said. “I hoped that at least one of those styles would work for Anna.” Savage’s approach must have paid off; Davis, although shy at first, memorized her lines and performed well on stage. “When she was focused, her work was as good as anyone’s,” he said. This semester, Davis will have to memorize up to 40 lines in a class performance of a play about high school bullying.

In addition to a busy course schedule, demanding assignments, and social events and activities, participants in the UP Program are placed in part-time jobs in areas in which they’re interested, where they gain not only valuable job skills but also self-confidence. “They try new things and succeed,” said Kelley.

Success Stories

The UP Program helps students with developmental disabilities,
including Elizabeth Pritchett (left), strolling with program
volunteer Shaneé Sullivan ’10, participate in all aspects
of campus life.

Through the program, participants have worked on campus in offices, greenhouses and the library. Some, like Elizabeth Pritchett, have even worked off campus. Pritchett dreamed of finding employment in a day care center, but was told that her limited reading abilities precluded her from working in a setting where reading to children was a core function of the job. That’s when Kelley stepped in and convinced the center’s staff to take a chance on Pritchett. The results did not surprise Kelley. “Elizabeth did very well,” she said. “She even took the initiative to try to implement part of a behavioral plan at the day care.” Pritchett’s impressive day care experience led to other meaningful, hands-on activities, including helping teach small groups at Cullowhee Valley School, where she assisted in planning a unit on farming, supervised groups, and contributed to lesson plans with fellow WCU students in the class.

Program graduate Michael Beasley, 25, who has worked as a consultant in the UP Program office mentoring new participants since the summer of 2010, is another success story. Beasley, who has cerebral palsy, feels his current job is a great fit for his skills and interests. “I’d like to stay in this position for at least five years or until the program runs out of money,” Beasley said. “In this economy, it sure is hard to find a job.” A Waynesville native, Beasley was the program’s first participant, from 2007 until 2009. “I have to toot my own horn,” he said. “Without me, I don’t think the program would have gotten off the ground.”

Beasley said that learning how to be independent was the most important thing he gained from the program. “The first couple of nights in the dorm were scary, but I got through it,” he said. “I was surprised by how busy I was, and I was surprised by how nice everyone was.” Beasley also recalled how willing facilities management workers were to install a track system in his Norton Residence Hall room so that he could get in and out of bed.

Like Beasley, Hoefs found the kindness of fellow students, faculty and staff to be the most unexpected aspect of his new life on campus. “I was most surprised by the student volunteers,” said Hoefs. “I thought that as soon as they found out that we were people with special needs, they would back out, but not one has backed out. I realized they were like my family away from home.”

His mother, Connie Hoefs, was relieved to observe the meaningful friendships her son developed through the program. “I had been very nervous before he started the program, not knowing how he would be treated as a special-needs person. Some people can be so cruel,” she said. “But he’s made so many friends. It goes beyond school. Even during the breaks, they were calling, texting and Facebooking each other.”

Like many college freshmen living away from home for the first time, UP Program participants experience bouts of homesickness. They also contemplate what they should do after college. Hoefs is no exception. “Everyone keeps asking me what I want to do after college, and I keep telling them it’s only my first year!” he said.

Hoefs’ mother, however, has a clear idea of her hopes for her son’s future. “My dreams are that one day he can be out on his own,” she said. “As every parent with a special-needs child will tell you, I know I won’t be here forever, so I want the best for him when I’m no longer here and able to help him.” She encourages other parents with special-needs children to allow their children to take part in educational opportunities like this one. “Don’t hold your child back because of your fears,” she said. “Let them go. If they don’t learn to walk, they’ll never learn to run.”

Pictured at top: Like other UP Program students, Anna Grace Davis (right) gains skills and confidence through part-time work. Here, she catalogs videotapes in Hunter Library with volunteer Rebekah Norris.