Embracing Inclusiveness

Students in an intellectual disability program are named Homecoming queen and king

By RANDALL HOLCOMBE and BILL STUDENC MPA ’10

Dale Carpenter, dean of the College of Education and Allied Professions, admits to getting a little teary-eyed when two students enrolled in a Western Carolina University program for college-age individuals with intellectual disabilities were announced as the university’s 2014 Homecoming queen and king Saturday, Oct. 25.

Ali Morgan Hale of Hickory and Ronnie Trace Shuler III of Robbinsville were recognized with the honors during halftime of the WCU football team’s game against The Citadel. The students, who are both enrolled in the University Participant Program, were chosen to be queen and king by WCU’s student body through a two-stage voting process. Students voted Oct. 1 to pick a Homecoming court of five women and five men from a slate of nominees, and then they voted again Oct. 8 to choose a queen and king from the 10 members of the court.

“This stuff chokes me up,” Carpenter said. “I am so proud of what the people in our Special Education Program are doing to help to make our community what we want it to be for every single person – a welcoming, inclusive environment for all, regardless of physical or developmental ability. While the selection of two members of the UP Program as queen and king of the Homecoming court is but one indicator, it is highly visible and a genuine affirmation of progress.”

After the game, Hale and Shuler said they appreciate the votes cast for them by members of WCU’s student body, and particularly the support of their friends across campus. Shuler said he took his iPad to classes and asked students to use it to vote for him and Hale. “I went all out,” he said. “I’m really excited that I got king for Western.” The crown Hale received at the WCU football game was a new one to add to her collection. “I was Homecoming queen at Hickory High School, and then I got prom queen,” she said. “I really do appreciate all the students’ votes because I told almost everybody to vote for Trace and me.”

The University Participant Program began on campus as a pilot program with one student enrolled in 2007. It has since grown to include eight students who are fully integrated into campus life by attending classes, engaging in social and recreational activities and taking part in student organizations. Four new students are enrolled each year in the program, which seeks to facilitate their transition from secondary school to adult life with education, employment and independent living. While they are on campus, each UP student is paired with a WCU student volunteer who interacts regularly while providing peer support.

Kelly Kelley ’03 MAEd ’06, UP Program consultant and assistant professor in WCU’s School of Teaching and Learning, said the students’ votes for Hale and Shuler are indicative of the manner in which the WCU community has embraced the UP program since its inception. “Everyone has learned from and supported each other in many aspects of college life while also realizing there are more commonalities than differences that exist,” Kelley said. “We are proud of our student body for demonstrating through their votes that they value having our UP students as part of their college experience and learning alongside them.”

Carpenter said the development of the UP Program is just one example of the positive impact being made by the appointment in 1997 of David Westling as the Adelaide Worth Daniels Distinguished Professor of Special Education. A gift of $666,000 from businesswoman and philanthropist Adelaide Daniels Key (see related story on page 55), supplemented with state funds, created the distinguished professorship, the first at WCU.

“Having our first endowed distinguished professorship in special education has paid off in so many ways,” Carpenter said. “The academic programs in special education have benefited from David Westling’s influence in the areas of providing preparation for our graduates to teach children with severe disabilities to our newest major, inclusive education, where graduates are being prepared to teach elementary school children with and without disabilities and are licensed in both areas. Dr. Westling has secured millions of dollars in grants far exceeding his salary during the time he has been at Western. The investment that Adelaide Key made so many years ago has reaped benefits for the university, region and state well beyond the original contribution.”