UNC Program Prepares Students With Intellectual, Developmental Disabilities For Lasting Independence
Corey Pierce was strolling through McKee Hall one day in the fall of 2019 when he came across a group of students standing polished in suits and dresses, almost as if they were on their way to prom.
The students, however, had donned their formal attire for mock job interviews. For Pierce, director of the School of Special Education at the University of Northern Colorado, that moment carries a lot of pride and became a measure of success for a program he helped build from scratch.
The program, UNC’s Go On and Learn (GOAL) Program, gives students with intellectual and developmental disabilities the same opportunity to go to college as their peers: They live in dorms and apartments on and near the Greeley campus, take full course loads, and gain real-world work experience, first through campus jobs and then in externships with community businesses.
And the students design their own career paths with every ounce of ambition as their classmates.
The program’s first class of graduates is now in the final stretch of college, as four students prepare to step into their careers after completing a certification of higher education in May. And for those professionally-dressed students whom Pierce stumbled upon more than a year ago, their mock job interviews were a key stepping stone to getting them there.
“That was a real eye-opening moment for me of OK, the program’s ready,” Pierce said. “These students are ready. They’re doing it, and they’re going to go out and they’re going to get jobs where, you know, if this program hadn’t been there, who knows what the story would have been?”
For so long, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have been unable to write much of their own story, limited by a stigma that Pierce and many of his GOAL Program colleagues continue to see. Pierce said students with intellectual and developmental disabilities belong to a “hidden population.” Many were educated in separate classrooms and buildings throughout elementary, middle and high school. Parents of those students have also often kept them at home to shield them from harsh reactions in public.
The GOAL Program has helped at least one corner of Colorado begin to move past that stigma. Its students are included in every part of campus life at UNC. But as those who’ve administered the program try to continue growing it, they’re navigating funding challenges, with a state contribution ending this year.
The program, launched five years ago with the support of Colorado lawmakers, is one of nearly 300 programs at higher education institutions across that country that open up an academic pathway for students with disabilities beyond their last year of high school. Colorado has three inclusive programs, offered by UNC, the University of Colorado Colorado Springs and Arapahoe Community College.
UNC’s program — which educates 19 students, down from 23 in the fall due to the pandemic and other life circumstances — is unique in that students can live on campus where they begin to gain a sense of independence alongside other college kids. The program is anchored by three components focused on academics, a campus social life and vocational training, which all go hand in hand to tee students up for a future that takes whatever shape they envision.
That sense of self-direction is something that’s long been missing for many individuals with disabilities in Colorado and across the country.
“Now we’ve got that safe environment where we can say, ‘Look, that’s your career goal. Let’s look at what it takes to do that job. Let’s train you to do that,’” Pierce said. “And we’re doing it.”
In preparing GOAL students to lead independent lives, much of the focus at UNC centers on building self-determination, self-advocacy and awareness of the broader world and students’ place in it, said Christina Ruffatti, executive director of the GOAL Program.
“For many of our students, decisions have been made for them all along the way,” Ruffatti said. “And coming here, being at UNC, this is really one of the first times they have their own voice and are able to use it.”
Mastering “hidden curriculum” and modified coursework
Robin Brewer, former interim director of UNC’s School of Special Education and former director of the GOAL Program, helped guide the program’s launch. She simply wanted to give students with developmental disabilities equal access to learning.
“My goal was to have an option for students with developmental disabilities to be able to continue learning in an area that they were interested in and to have this college experience,” said Brewer, who retired in July 2019. “They see their siblings going off to college and to know that they’ll never be able to do that was really hard for many students before, and now they can have that college experience.”
A big part of GOAL students’ four years at UNC, like their peers, revolves around figuring out what kind of career they want to pursue and completing the right courses. GOAL students take specialized classes throughout college, including an introductory course for freshmen that focuses on the transition into college, which helps students learn how to complete homework, read a syllabus and be part of campus. Another introductory class is devoted to career exploration. And as GOAL students progress through college, they take classes that focus on how to live with other people and get along with them, how to budget and how to understand taxes.
Many of the skills GOAL students concentrate on during college are intended to help them thrive on their own after graduation.
Both James Slaughter, director of campus inclusion for the GOAL Program, and peer mentors help students develop and stay on top of those life skills — like laundry, cleaning and hygiene practices.
Slaughter delicately juggles roles as teacher, friend and life coach for his students, whom he wants to live as fully as possible and learn through real-life experiences and mistakes.
“No book I’ve ever read makes them not a human,” Slaughter said.
Some of the biggest strides that GOAL students make often happen in their own ways and their own time. Laura Anderson, the GOAL Program’s academic coordinator, points to subtle examples of one particularly quiet student who emerged from his shell this year, confident enough to participate in class and introduce himself to one of his professors afterward.
For other students, asking for help can be daunting, but they learn to overcome that fear and take charge of asking for what they need.
Anderson refers to those moments of growth as “the hidden curriculum” that isn’t explicitly taught or tracked but that reflects students’ steps in the right direction.
GOAL students also take regular academic courses alongside peers who are not part of the GOAL Program.
Anderson helps students succeed in those classes by working with professors to modify class content and adapt rubrics so they’re more geared toward GOAL students. That could mean that when a GOAL student gives a speech or has to write a paper, either one is shorter than what is expected of degree-seeking students. Generally, Anderson looks for class assignments like speeches and papers to be cut in half for GOAL students, though exact adjustments vary among students.
GOAL staff track students’ progress by developing an individualized plan of study according to the discipline they’re studying. Anderson or a graduate assistant will meet with students weekly or every other week to help them assess their grades, plan for upcoming assignments and determine if they need more or less support.
But even as Anderson and other GOAL staff assist a student, they don’t know what disability that student has. When students apply to the program, they don’t have to include their specific disability.
GOAL Program administrators and educators interview applicants extensively so they can get a clear picture of their aspirations and abilities. And once students are enrolled in the program, Anderson continues getting to know them, in part through some of the specialized classes she teaches. From there, she can recommend the best kinds of modifications for her students to other professors.
In identifying students who are a good fit for the GOAL Program, Ruffatti, executive director, said a student must want to be a college student and be driven, themselves, to take on college classes. They also must have the skills to navigate the community safely, manage downtime and have some experience in advocating for themselves.
“We’re all able to learn”
GOAL students also gain work experience through paid campus jobs and externships at community businesses for school credit. The program also places a high priority on students socializing and becoming involved in campus activities.
Peer mentors, who are paid staff, help energize their social lives and integrate them into campus in addition to helping them with academics and career preparation.
Cal Crum, a freshman in the GOAL Program who is interested in early childhood education, turns to his peer mentor for help with schoolwork. Crum, 20, grew up in Denver and is living away from his family for the first time. Like many college students, he’s often torn between an exciting new sense of independence and a nagging feeling of homesickness.
It’s been a big adjustment for Crum, who lives on campus in Turner Hall with another GOAL student. He’s faced a lot of stress figuring out the details of his days, like what he needs to accomplish and where he needs to go to get certain materials. But he’s also found a reliable support system in the GOAL Program, through which he’s started picking up life skills like counting money and making purchases.
Despite the first-year challenges and turbulence amid the pandemic, Crum, who has cerebral palsy, has acclimated to campus. He enjoys hanging out with small groups of friends and, last fall, played flag football, though the pandemic cut the season short.
And while he misses his family, he likes running his own schedule and making his own decisions. Students “don’t have to follow any rules” like those enforced by their parents, he said.
Isabelle Woloson, 21, has grown in her independence in the past three-and-a-half years as a GOAL student. Woloson, who will complete her certificate this spring, has made the most of her senior year, becoming more involved on campus than she did during her first three years. She’s branched out to meet more friends and is part of a gender-inclusive fraternity, which has held small events this semester.
Woloson, who is from Boulder and who has Down syndrome, is determined to become a life coach after graduating and is taking a nine-month certification program. The GOAL program has helped her chart that path. She said she has built a lot of knowledge through her college classes and benefited from the support of multiple GOAL peer mentors. She also spent a year and a half working in the dining hall and expanded her skills with an internship that focused on observing staff meetings and helping with data entry.
As Woloson rounds the bend of her final stretch at UNC, she feels a blur of emotions. She’s ready to graduate and confident in the independence she’s developed but also nervous about what comes next.
And as she reflects on her time as a college student, Woloson noted how fast the years have flown and how inclusive campus has been for her, especially with the friendships she’s formed. But she also sees room for improvement at UNC and hopes the GOAL Program elevates its focus on creating more opportunities for GOAL students to socialize with one another.
That sense of campus inclusion is a newer concept for Colorado, which trailed other states in establishing inclusive higher education programs, Pierce said. But in working with college partners across the country who laid the foundation for those programs, UNC was able to more quickly develop its own.
The program was largely made possible by the legislature, which in 2016 pushed forward $75,000 to get an inclusive higher education program up and running at UNC as well as UCCS and Arapahoe Community College.
Brewer, who is retired from UNC and is now a part-time instructional coach with the Colorado Department of Education, urged lawmakers to support legislation behind the funding. The university’s School of Special Education had contemplated a program for individuals with developmental disabilities. That idea gained traction when parents from the nonprofit Colorado Initiative for Inclusive Higher Education, which works to open up college opportunities to students with intellectual disabilities, attended a faculty meeting and encouraged the institution to create an inclusive program.
And in the same way that many parents who have children with disabilities have had to fight to ensure their kids are included in classrooms, the architects of the GOAL Program had to push to open up a space for students with disabilities on UNC’s campus.
Pierce recalls having heated conversations with other UNC staff and organizations who discounted students with disabilities and pushed back against a college program for them, even after the legislation and funding fell in place. Persistence and support from upper level administration, including former Provost Robbyn Wacker, helped pave the way.
Even after the program was up and running, staff faced significant hurdles. A few months of hasty preparation for the first cohort of students and turnover among program staff prompted a redesign of the program in its second year.
Now, five years in, the GOAL Program has built momentum. But as far as it has come with its first class of students set to graduate this spring, Pierce knows there’s more work to do. GOAL students pay an additional $4,500 each semester on top of tuition, putting the program financially out of reach for many families — an issue Pierce hopes to address. And state funding for inclusive higher education programs sunsets this year, compounding the problem.
That means the GOAL Program must operate on a lean budget, Pierce said, noting that the program will not fill a vacant position. Asking the university for funding isn’t an option, he added, since it faces its own budget challenges.
GOAL staff have learned a few things in the past five years, too. People with disabilities just need an opportunity to join the workforce and wider communities.
“Let them in the room,” Pierce said. “Let them have that conversation. Let them show you what they can do, where their passions are, and that’ll break down a lot of the barriers.”
Brewer sees higher education as a civil right. Students with disabilities need a slightly different approach, “but they still are able to learn,” she said. “We’re all able to learn.”
Crum, for instance, writes slowly and takes a few minutes more than others to piece together his thoughts, but he knows he’s right where he’s supposed to be.
College, he said, is “a better choice” for him. He’s glad it’s a choice at all.