Millersville University

The Student Memorial Center on the campus of Millersville University in Millersville on Tuesday, June 28, 2016.

It’s the same – full stop. That’s what Jan Bechtel, Director of the newly renamed Integrated Studies program at Millersville University, wants you to know. The new name is more holistic and descriptive of the program as the previous name, Career and Life Studies, was continually mistaken for Career and Life Skills. This is not a vocational training program at all.

The Integrated Studies program is a way for individuals with an intellectual disability to obtain an individualized postsecondary education set in a fully inclusive program meant to touch on academics, building, developing and maintaining relationships, career exploration and independent living. That’s where – it’s the same - comes in. Students experience college life alongside their peers and, as such, are faced with the same challenges and growth experiences of learning to live independently of their parents within the inclusive program. According to Ms Bechtel, a passionate supporter of this program, “Having students engage with typical peers is key to their growth, because who better to learn from than their typical peers who are going through the very same experiences. They are struggling to build relationships, navigate academics, self-advocate, live away from home and figure out who they are.”

An example of this would be working with a student who is interested in attending a downtown event. The student needs to plan how and where to get the bus so they are expanding their academic career through the event, but also by taking public transportation have to plan ahead and think about organizing their time.

An idea of Dr. Thomas Neuville’s, Faculty Advisor, who thought about it for 15 years, the program needed time and the perspective of the University to align. A grant from D.R.E.A.M Partnerships, who work to develop post-secondary educational opportunities, including dormitory options, and advocate for students with intellectual disabilities, helped get it off the ground as a pilot program in 2014 with one student.

Expanded to nine students in 2015 and 2016 with a total of 15 for the 2016 to 2017 academic year, it will probably grow again in 2017. As the program becomes more well-known, interest has risen. This year there were 34 applicants, more than Millersville could take. While there is no cap to size, they will only add students if they can be well supported. They want students to have a good experience which differs for every student. Bechtel says, “We annually review where we can improve and areas of opportunity, but we also want consistency, to have students using everything available to them and have the resources same as a typical peer.”

And this is just as challenging for the parents according to Bechtel. “Universities won’t always get or come to a concrete way of supporting parents who have a heightened sense of concern and advocacy. As parents transition from being warriors and step back into an advisor role they learn to harness and use their advocacy in other ways. This, in turn, make the students’ experience better.”

One of the ways the program itself is growing is that they will very soon offer both four year and two year alternatives. The incoming class of 2017 can opt to do a four year degree although that decision is not required at the time of entrance, it’s more like declaring a major. The difference between the two is the level of intentionality and intensity. The program is now multidisciplinary studies focused. Students begin with person centered planning by identifying their interests from everything from academic to career to relationships and mentoring. All begin to focus on their interest areas to help them build. In a four year degree a student can focus on two areas of interest rather than just one.

One of the obstacles is financial. Students are not eligible for federal financial aid. A FASFA can be completed for Pell grants, and there is Office of Vocational Rehabilitation funding. Beyond that students and their families self-pay the same tuition and boarding costs as any student at Millersville University with an additional educational support coach fee. Not being able to access federal financial aid impacts students tremendously according to Bechtel.

There are stigmas associated with disabilities, and fear of the unknown surrounds the individual who has one. For many on a college campus they have had no experiences with any individuals with intellectual disabilities, and stigma and stereotypes can get the better of them. This is overcome, Bechtel says, “by letting students talk for themselves. They are fully included on campus and self-advocate. Leadership is provided, the opportunity to speak at events, discuss who they are and their achievements.”

The range of student interests is wide, everything from sports to the culinary arts. One would like to work in the fitness industry as a personal trainer. Another wants to be involved in theatre or events, working with lighting, sound or stage craft or setting up for concerts. There are entrepreneurs who want to start their own photography business or open a bookstore on a beach after gaining experience in a bookstore. Another is seeking an internship with a TV station with the goal of becoming a weather person. Two want to work in education as learning support aides or in a child care center. If all this sounds like the interests of typical college students it’s because they are the same as any other college student with the same dreams and ambitions. Previously it was perceived that there was a cap on the possibilities for students with disabilities. If true before, it certainly no longer is.

The Integrated Studies program increases expectations for both the participants and for all students. The goal is for students to come and have an inclusive experience, raise the bar and raise their sights as to what is possible for them.