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Aggies Elevated: Dreams Do Come True

Sue Reaves


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Two Aggies Elevated students with their A-Team leader during a recent SOAR activity.
Two Aggies Elevated students with their A-Team leader during a recent SOAR activity.

Most parents expect that their child will go to college, get a job, move away from home. And most children do, although not necessarily in that order.

For the parents of a young adult with an intellectual disability, however, the future is never as certain as that. But while the dreams parents have for their children may fade, they never go away completely, and once in a great while, a new dream begins to take shape. Something better. An idea that changes everything.

Going to college to study art has been her dream. When we heard of the Aggies Elevated program, our hearts soared! She might actually get to go to college, and live in a dorm, and study art, and participate and socialize as regular students do in a structured, assisted, safe environment where the staff understands her unique gifts and recognizes her ability and sees her as an asset, not a burden! Amazing!

What it is

Aggies Elevated is a pilot program at Utah State University that will offer an inclusive, on-campus college experience for young adults with intellectual disabilities. It is the first of its kind in Utah, and one of only a handful of similar programs west of the Rocky Mountains. The first cohort of eight students recently visited the Logan campus for Student Orientation and Registration (SOAR), and will return when the semester begins in the fall.

The program is housed at the Center for Persons with Disabilities, a unit of the Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services, and takes advantage of the knowledge and experience of clinicians at the CPD and faculty in special education, rehabilitation counseling, communicative disorders, psychology and others.

“Students with intellectual disabilities have much to gain from full inclusion in campus life at USU,” said Beth Foley, dean of the College. “They will have rich and varied opportunities for academic, vocational, social and emotional growth and like all students at USU, will acquire the knowledge and skills needed to live healthy, independent and successful adult lives.”

A college experience is quite different from high school. More is expected of you and you have more opportunities to learn, socialize and decide what your life will be like in the future. We believe that the program will provide our daughter with a vision of what it will be like to live a more independent life. We believe strongly that she will be happier, more productive and a contributing member of society if she is able to live and work independently from her parents and siblings.

Why it's important

“There are principles in life that guide us that result in happiness,” said Jared Schultz, associate professor and director of the rehabilitation counseling program. He has functioned as the team lead during the development of the Aggies Elevated program.

“Work, education, independence, relationships—people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are systematically left out and screened out of these opportunities, but it doesn’t mean that those principles don’t apply,” he said.

Part of the challenge of creating a program like Aggies Elevated, Schultz said, is that institutions of higher education are set up with admissions criteria to screen for those applicants who have high ability.

“The natural question is to ask why someone who has less ability would ever want to attend—or is it even appropriate for them to attend—an institution of higher learning? But not all learning in college is academic. To assume that all students entirely throw themselves into their studies and do nothing else is ludicrous.

“The assumption is that our students don’t value learning or can’t learn, and that’s not true. To assume someone can’t learn is to deny their humanity.”

Despite her challenges, she is a very happy and social young woman. She loves to be with people but her learning disability affects her interaction with her peers, making it difficult for her to make friends. She yearns to have a group of friends like other young people enjoy. We believe Aggies Elevated will give her the college experience she so desires and enable her to develop meaningful friendships.

Like any other freshmen
Aggies Elevated students fill out paperwork to get their student ID cards.

The two-year program will result in a certificate of completion. The coursework will focus on skills needed to succeed in college and in life. Career exploration and internships resulting in meaningful employment are a primary goal.

“The thing that struck me was how much they have in common with any other incoming freshman,” said Becky Morgan, the program’s academic advisor. “From that perspective, advising isn’t all that different. We need to look at what foundation pieces are missing in terms of what their needs are.”

Like any other freshmen, Aggies Elevated students will live in the dorms, get homesick, learn to live with roommates who drink their milk and eat their cereal, get themselves out of bed and off to class on time, study for tests, participate in class discussions, stay up too late with their friends, navigate an unfamiliar campus and learn the Aggie fight song.

However, they will also receive the individualized supports they need—in the form of mentors, tutors, study groups and more—as they need them.

“We will have strong safety nets to optimize their opportunity for success,” said Becky Morgan. “I think it’s going to evolve as our students evolve. What we have to offer will evolve. We will turn it back to the students to determine where they want to go. It’s a process that’s full of the opportunity for evolution. I’m excited to see what develops.”

During the first semester, the students will all take the same classes, but in subsequent semesters, they will be able to choose more courses that interest them.

“The fundamental thing was to realize that within the certificate program, there is a lot of leeway for the student to build successful independent living and academic pursuits,” she said. “When we begin with their preferences in mind, we can bolster the foundation for academic success. That’s where we do the greatest service. It does take some suspending of preconceived notions of limitations and expectations of disability itself."

My goals right now are to become more independent in using money. I want to be able to make my own good choices. I want to be able to live in my own apartment, maybe with a pet or a roommate. I like to help other people in my life and I am sensitive to their feelings. And I would like to be a peer coach to other students who come into the program after me.

Aggies Elevated is not for everyone, said program director Sarah Stone.

A student with a disability who has a high school diploma and an ACT score may be able to gain regular admission to the university. Those students will also have access to coursework and resources that are specific to the Aggies Elevated program.

Students who don’t have a diploma or an ACT score, who don’t have any behavior problems and who have the drive and motivation to succeed in a residential campus environment are the students for whom the program has been designed, Stone said.

The students in the first cohort went through an extensive application and interview process. Despite very little initial publicity, 10 applications were received for six available slots. Ultimately, eight students were selected.

I’m really good at making friends and following directions. I’m very good at being on time and being prepared. I am able to ask for help when needed. I can take care of my basic needs. I want a college experience.

Serendipitous start

It began with a phone call.

“There are a lot of reasons why I shouldn’t have answered the phone that night,” said Jeff Sheen, CPD transition specialist and doctoral student in the Disability Disciplines program. “I was in the office later than usual, it was the holiday season and the campus was a ghost town. I should have been home.”

That phone call in late 2012 lasted for about 45 minutes, and then Sheen directed the caller to Bob Morgan, a professor in the special education department who also specializes in transition. The scenario was repeated.

“I got this phone call from Jonathan Bullen,” Bob Morgan said. “It was clear that I was talking to someone who wanted to make this program happen and was capable of doing so. He was clearly dedicated and committed to seeing this become a reality. He had a vision for it, and also the business sense.”

And so began a series of discussions that culminated in an October 2013 event in Salt Lake City, hosted by Jonathan and Julie Bullen, to build support for the dream that had begun to feel like a possibility.

I look forward to the opportunity to give my daughter the best I can. This program, from what I can see so far, is the best I can give her at this time in her life. She wants so desperately to be her own person. Her limitations are frustrating to her.

Building the foundation

The program has rocketed from concept to reality in a mere eight months. But like most “overnight” sensations, the foundation for Aggies Elevated took nearly a decade to build.

Bob Morgan had become interested in post-secondary education opportunities for young adults with disabilities, and wanted to create a campus-based post-high program at Utah State. In the world of special education, students can continue to receive services after high school until age 21.

“I was excited about creating a post-high school program on campus,” he said. “But I thought, ‘Why should we limit it to post-high?’ We could find young adults with disabilities who would relish the opportunity to try college coursework. It was happening across the country. Why not here at USU? I thought we were better suited than most because of all the resources we have here: the CPD, special ed, psychology, ComD, rehab counseling.”

But it was not yet the time for the type of program Morgan envisioned.

In 2005, Project PEER (Post-secondary Education, Employment and Research) became the predecessor to Aggies Elevated. It is also housed at the CPD, and offers a post-high school educational experience on a college campus, but that is where the resemblance ends. Project PEER is a self-contained classroom in which the students learn independent living skills and practice interviewing and job skills. Some hold jobs on campus, but there is only general interaction with the university community at large.

The next year, Pathway at UCLA Extension was launched. It would become a model for Aggies Elevated.

Jonathan and Julie Bullen lived in California from 2004 to 2012 and had become familiar with the Transition to Independent Living program at Taft College and with Pathway. They visited twice and became friends with Eric Latham, the executive director.

“We were impressed with their outcomes,” said Jonathan Bullen. “The students were independently motivated, many were working ... it really appealed to us.”

Kim and Linda Henrie had moved to Park City, Utah from California to give their daughter, Taylor, better educational opportunities. Taylor has Down syndrome and had thrived in a Montessori program, which ultimately closed due to funding issues.

The Henries also visited Pathway.

“Kim didn’t want to ship her out of state,” said Linda Henrie. “We went to Pathways and loved it. I said, ‘OK, I’m happy.’ Kim said ‘no.’ I said, ‘what are we going to do?’

“Kim said, ‘we’re going home to find a way to get a program in Utah.’”

The most exciting thing for me is that my son has a chance to attend college. I never thought he would have a chance to experience college life and gain a higher education. I believe the Aggies Elevated program will assist him in growing academically, gain more independence and develop further social skills.

In 2008, the Higher Education Opportunity Act was passed, which authorized $12 million for the expansion of inclusive post-secondary programs. These competitive Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities (TPSID, or “tip-sid”) grants were to be renewable for five years, and had a maximum award of $500,000.

The Henries began meeting with another university in pursuit of their dream of an inclusive post-secondary program for their daughter.

“We had a good reception,” Kim Henrie said. “They started networking, they had a plan approved by the university, they were aware of the $12 million in TPSID funds.”

A grant application was never submitted, however, and the project stalled.

The first round of TPSID grants was awarded in 2009, and “wasn’t even on our radar at that point,” said Sheen. When the grant competition’s second round opened in 2011, he and Bob Morgan met with former CPD director Sarah Rule to talk about writing the TPSID grant.

“We agonized over it,” Sheen said. “We realized we had groundwork we needed to lay first before we could handle a TPSID grant. Things weren’t even in place enough for the foundation.”

Instead of the TPSID grant, Morgan, Rule and Sheen wrote a $15,000 strategic planning grant that was awarded by Think College, a program based at the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts. They intended to have a strategic plan in place by the time the third round of the TPSID grant competition opened.

An Aggies Elevated student is photographed for his student ID card.

Stakeholders were contacted, focus groups were assembled and data was collected over the next nine months.

“We had a lot of interesting conversations. A lot of times it was the first time they’d heard about a program like this,” Sheen said. “We came up with a strategic plan that ultimately said we would have two fully functioning inclusive programs at two universities in Utah by 2018.”

In the middle of the nine-month planning grant, TPSID funding dried up. No new grants would be awarded.

“After we processed that news, we said, ‘well, then, what CAN we do?’” Sheen said. “Bob decided we’ve got to do something, money or no money.”

The Utah Transition Action Team began to take shape.

“We started to meet. A lot of people came,” Sheen said. “We were doing important things, but not really things that were going to move us toward this vision of inclusive post-secondary education opportunities.”

With a strategic plan, but no funding available, a program at Utah State was dead in the water.

The Bullens moved back to Utah in 2012 and eventually met the Henries.

“We found out they had tried to do this at another university in 2009 or so. They had gotten some approvals and it was moving forward, and then it wasn’t,” Jonathan Bullen said. “When Kim told me what had happened, I said, ‘why doesn’t USU do this?’ We looked at PEER and got in touch with Bob. He and Jared (Schultz) came and met with me and we started talking about this.”

The resulting October 2013 information meeting was attended by a small group of hopeful parents, potential donors, educators and others. Presenters included Meg Grigal from Think College, Latham from Pathway, and Schultz.

The excitement in the room was palpable, said Shane Johnson, the CPD’s associate director of development. It was also a turning point in terms of acquiring the necessary funding.

“We didn’t want to be the main funder for the program,” Jonathan Bullen said. “We asked the Henries to co-chair, and went to David and Hannah Duke and said, ‘why don’t we provide some seed money for this?”

By the end of the evening, startup funds for the program’s first year had been pledged, and the race was on.

“I had sent Jonathan all of the information from the other university several months before the October event,” Kim Henrie said. “I told him, ‘we’ve got to push them. Whatever it takes to get this done by fall 2014.’”

Our vision would be that she has a meaningful career (to her) and have all the skills necessary to live an independent and happy life. It has never occurred to us that she should have anything less than that. We are most excited that she will have a traditional, residential, college experience that we believe is vital to the development of all young adults, disabled and non-disabled. We can’t wait to buy her an Aggies t-shirt.

Pioneers in higher education

The first cohort of Aggies Elevated students pose in the program space at the Center for Persons with Disabilities.

“This is just an answer to years of searching and working and trying and failing,” said Linda Henrie. She is sitting in the Aggies Elevated program space after participating in a college orientation experience that had always been a dream, but never a sure thing.

“If we could have envisioned this day ... there would have been a lot fewer darker days in that whole period,” continued Kim. “This is a paradigm shift for everyone. This is going to change everything. This class of eight—they are such pioneers.”

There are thousands of young people that just need the opportunity to show what they’re capable of, and to prove to themselves what they’re capable of—to find their place in this beautiful tapestry of life. We are witnessing the realization of our dreams for our daughter and for other parents and their children.

Timing is everything. It is a sentiment that has been echoed by almost everyone involved in the program’s launch.

“It’s been interesting to me through my career to see how innovative ideas can fly or fall flat depending on timing,” said Bob Morgan. “Timing is all about a person’s receptivity and understanding of the concept. It has been so right this year.”

“It all just began because a lot of pieces started to fall into place,” said Sheen. “The Bullens and the Henries, it was meant to be—the right time, the right place, the right people.”

Supporting the vision

An Aggies Elevated student registers for SOAR as program director Sarah Stone watches from a distance.

The name “elevated” is really important. It’s a philosophy of elevating everyone’s expectations and opportunities—for the students, the parents, the faculty—elevating the whole community. It kind of clicks with people, we can elevate conversations about what’s possible and what’s good for the community and for the individuals.



“When we went to Dean Foley, she was very supportive,” Schultz said. “She immediately saw the value and really understood the potential impact here in being able to develop Aggies Elevated into a national exemplary program that people around the state and nation can look to. She immediately saw the value of having Aggies Elevated at USU and the College of Education, with all the clinics and programs, to draw on the vast resources of the university to make it happen.”

The Bullens and Henries agreed.

“With the CPD and what you already have here—the departments, the educational commitments—it’s unusual,” said Kim Henrie. “You don’t find that at the U, at UVU, at UCLA.”

“You have so many resources in this broader bucket,” said Jonathan Bullen. “You have all of the resources and the passion of all of the people involved.”

“USU is uniquely structured to have and develop a project like this and to become an incubator for similar projects,” said Linda Henrie.

“I have been amazed by the widespread support for this program—from students, faculty, and administrators across campus, to donors in Utah and around the country,” said Foley. “People seem to recognize that we have as much to gain from Aggies Elevated students as we have to offer, and I am grateful to everyone who has helped make our vision for the program a reality.”

Bryce Fifield, director of the CPD, said he is thrilled that the CPD is the new home of Aggies Elevated.

“It’s very exciting, and we look forward to seeing it grow and blossom at other universities within the state of Utah,” he said.

“Because of the extent of the program and the professionals engaged in disability and education, and the fundamental value of social justice and social inclusion, this was a project that people embraced,” Schultz said. “It resonated with the values that our faculty and staff had.”

“It’s been a marvelously well-coordinated and energizing experience,” said Bob Morgan. “It has been a team effort with everyone clearly focused on creating a program that benefited young adults—exactly the way these things work when they work well. I never sensed that anybody was motivated by any other concerns. It was all focused on the kids. That’s how good programs are developed.”

People who don’t have a child with a learning disability—they can’t fully comprehend what you go through as a parent. Being here for SOAR has made it 100 times better. The culture of the people as a whole, it’s so impressive. Everyone is inviting, friendly and accommodating. She’s going to be comfortable asking for help.

“At every level, every person, every component, every infrastructure—everybody is passionate about this,” said Kim Henrie.

“We didn’t expect this level of commitment and passion from an institution,” continued Linda Henrie. “That’s what’s so overwhelming to me.

It is far away and I will miss her. That is my emotional response, but intellectually I know this would be the best for both of us. Thank you.

For more information on the Aggies Elevated program, click here.

To follow Aggies Elevated on Facebook, click here.

To watch the “Aggies Elevated: Opportunity” video, click here.

To inquire about funding opportunities for Aggies Elevated, call Shane Johnson, CPD associate director of development, at (435) 797-9070.


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