LEXINGTON, Ky. (Jan. 9, 2023) — On the Tuesday morning after Thanksgiving, a group of University of Kentucky students and their parents sat around a table to share how thankful and grateful they are for an opportunity.
The students are part of UK’s new College and Career Studies (CCS) program, which is led by the university’s Human Development Institute (HDI). It’s a Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary (CTP) Program, approved by the U.S. Department of Education, for students with intellectual disabilities who want to continue academic, career and technical, and independent living instruction to prepare for competitive integrated employment.
The program is part of the Kentucky Supported Higher Education Partnership (KSHEP), a network of Institutions of Higher Education across the state offering inclusive higher education programs for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In addition to coordinating UK’s CTP program, HDI also serves as Kentucky’s technical assistance center on supported higher education. Other partners for UK’s program include the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT), the Stuckert Career Center and the Disability Resource Center.
"This is something we’ve wanted and hoped for, for a long time," one parent shared with the group.
Five students are currently enrolled in the CCS program, and most have just finished their first semester of college. One student piloted the program last year and returned for her second year at UK.
At their Tuesday gathering, the students shared their favorite parts of being on campus so far:
"I love my classes."
"I love seeing my friends."
"I love learning."
"I love being at college."
"I’m fulfilling my dream."
CCS Program Coordinator Erin Fitzgerald beamed as students went around the room and shared their individual successes.
“Overall, the program has been going really well,” Fitzgerald told UKNow. “We've had moments here and there where we had to work through some things. But overall, I feel like it has been a really good experience for students and for everyone else involved.”
Fitzgerald keeps in contact with students throughout the program, from application to completion, and provides support to faculty and staff as needed or requested. Parents described Fitzgerald as a lifeline for students, being supportive and proactive, and someone who keeps the program organized and safe.
Most of the students took two classes this semester, including UK 101, to learn about college life, and Introduction to Universal Design, to explore ways the world is and is not accessible to all people. As with any college student, Fitzgerald said future classes will follow their areas of interest.
“I feel like those classes kind of lay the groundwork for students being able to focus a little bit more on specific interests in their courses for next semester, having a foundation to start off with,” explained Fitzgerald. “Then, if a student is more interested in taking classes that are related to writing or communication, they may choose to take courses that are in that direction, or art, dance, science or math.”
Students take courses that are open to any other UK student. They shared with the group the stresses of midterms and finals, along with the test of navigating a large campus, including learning bus routes and where key facilities are, like the library and fitness centers. Seeing students overcome those challenges counts as a win for Fitzgerald.
“Watching students get more comfortable in the campus environment has been one of the biggest joys for me because I think that lays the groundwork for a more meaningful experience each semester,” Fitzgerald said.
Parents shared the differences they’ve seen in their students, becoming more independent and surer of themselves. Many collectively shared the sentiment that the CCS program is the answer to a prayer and a long-awaited hope for an opportunity like this.
In Kentucky, about 7% of students with intellectual disabilities are enrolled in a college or university in the year after they leave high school.
“We take seriously our position as the Commonwealth’s flagship university. I want UK to model for other colleges and universities who are interested in establishing a program like this what an effective program for students with intellectual disabilities can be,” said Johnny Collett, deputy director of HDI.
Program leaders say the challenges with the program have been on the administrative side, building an infrastructure that didn’t previously exist to handle the nuances and differences in the students’ situations. For example, some students may not meet traditional admission requirements. They also will not be degree-seeking students and may have questions about applying for federal financial aid they’re now eligible for.
“This program is new to everyone at UK, including faculty, staff and students on campus who are not affiliated with the program, so there's a learning curve in that sense. I really appreciate the good response overall that we’ve had from the university,” Fitzgerald said.
"The entire campus has been amazing. She walks around like every other student," one parent said.
The program is also making connections at the university. Kayla Allison, a senior who is a double major in arts administration and dance, helped put together a dance workshop with students and peer mentors. Students highlighted it as one of their favorite memories.
“That was a really good experience,” Fitzgerald said. “I was able to see some students in their element. It was a side of them I hadn’t gotten to see. Everyone connected and learned together.”
For the spring semester, students are interested in studying subjects like music appreciation, dance, creative writing, communication, theatre and mythology. They’ll also add a work experience element. Program leaders are exploring internship placements or options for volunteer experience in a community theater company, a community music organization, a local dance company, Christian Student Fellowship and CELT.
“We want this program to be a positive contributor to an inclusive workforce in Kentucky,” Collett said. “As our state advances efforts toward an increasingly skilled and diverse workforce, I want folks to see students that come out of this program as part of our talent pipeline, recognizing the contributions people with disabilities can and do bring to our workforce.”
Kentucky passed Employment First legislation last year. It prioritizes the philosophy that everyone has the right to work, including people with significant disabilities. Competitive integrated employment in the community is the first and primary option for persons with disabilities of working age who want to become employed.
That Tuesday morning, parents tearfully shared their gratitude for the team at UK creating and directing the CCS program.
"You think a big university can’t adjust to you, but they can," one parent said.
Program leaders will continue to focus on the students and their success.
“If we can be part of whatever it is that helps students reach the next steps of their goals, that is what I see as program success. And that's going to be different for each student,” Fitzgerald said.
Program leaders plan to enroll up to five more students in the Fall 2023 semester with the application window opening in the spring.
About the Human Development Institute
The Human Development Institute (HDI) is a unit of the Office of the Executive Vice President for Research at the University of Kentucky and Kentucky’s University Center on Disability. HDI’s mission is to advance efforts that build inclusive communities, address inequities and improve the lives of all people who experience disability across the lifespan.
HDI also serves as the statewide technical assistance center supporting CTP programs at Murray State University, Northern Kentucky University, and Bluegrass Community and Technical College, as well as a resource to other Kentucky colleges and universities interested in establishing a program.
As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.
In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.