Many students with intellectual disabilities don’t think that college is in the cards for them, but a new program at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus is aiming to change that.
UMatter, which is being funded by a $900,000 grant from the Florida Center for Students With Unique Abilities and led by a team from the College of Education, will launch in spring 2021 with an inaugural class of 8 to 12 students. They’ll have the opportunity to audit freshman and sophomore-level classes, live in on-campus housing and experience traditional college life while gaining skills that will help them find meaningful employment and live independently.
“Young adults with these disabilities tend to not have been exposed to high expectations of going to college or pursuing a career,” said Dani Roberts-Dahm, UMatter co-principal investigator and director. “But through training and support provided by UMatter, they will learn time management, develop appropriate social relationships and know how to ask for help when they need it.”
The application process for the program will be similar to the one for traditional students. They’ll need to have a high school diploma and they’ll be asked to submit recommendations and do interviews. Roberts-Dahm said they’re looking for students who can articulate why they want to go to college and how it will help them achieve future career goals. While the program will be open to students from across the country, she expects the initial class will be mostly those who live in the Tampa Bay area. She plans to do outreach through local high schools and college and fairs, while also listing the program on the national database ThinkCollege to recruit at the national level.
Students in the program will take nine classes over the course of two-and-a-half to three years based on their career goals, and they’ll be supported by UMatter professional staff and student mentors. While they won’t earn a traditional degree, they’ll be able to put together a portfolio of their academic work, internships, and extracurricular activities that will help them land a career with an upward trajectory.
“Our key goal is for them to get a solid job and career before they leave,” Roberts-Dahm said. “We want to empower them to make decisions and contribute to their economic self-sufficiency.”
Lyman Dukes, a professor of special education and principal investigator for the program, said that USF’s strong ties to the local business community will help with job placement, adding that some businesses have already expressed interest in hiring graduates from the program.
Aside from the future employment piece, Roberts-Dahm expects having an on-campus housing option will attract a lot of interest in the program and allow students to engage more fully in the traditional college experience. The details are still being ironed out, but the students would live in residence halls alongside their peers, likely with a resident mentor living nearby to help support them.
“We want to ensure what we’re hoping to be a typical college experience, and that means authentically including people in our campus community,” Duke said.