A new program at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg provides young people with intellectual disabilities the opportunity for higher education and the experience of campus life.
The future of that program recently became much brighter thanks to a $1.2 million gift from Andrew and Eileen Hafer.
UMatter was awarded a $900,000 grant from the Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities in August of 2020. After a year of planning and preparation, the program welcomed its first seven students at the start of the fall semester this August. Danielle Roberts-Dahm, director & co-principal investigator of UMatter, said the program is an inclusive post-secondary program and provides access for people with intellectual disabilities to experience campus life like any other person their age.
“It’s a population that might not otherwise have that opportunity to go to college,” she said.
Roberts-Dahm said the students live in dorms and take classes as non-degree-seeking students. They take regular college classes and participate in job shadowing and internships, and the end goal is employment, “just like any of us going to college.”
Students in the program are heavily supported by other USFSP students and through various mentorships. These include life coaches, academic mentors and tutors, and peer mentors “that get to do the fun stuff.”
“They get involved,” said Roberts-Dahm. “Go to clubs, organizations, and events on campus, and just grab lunch or coffee.”
Jayme Jocelyn, assistant director of UMatter, said that creating independent living skills is another focus of the program. She said for many of the students, this is their first experience of “adulting.” So, in addition to their classwork and job programs, they also work on things like doing laundry, cleaning, scheduling, and prioritizing appointments.
Lyman Dukes, co-principal investigator of the program, added that these students are doing the same things that any other college student would be doing.
“Frankly, they have the same typical challenges – learning and being successful as it relates to adult life skills -– that we all sort of learn around college age,” said Dukes. “What we know is that they just need a bit more support, but they learn them as well, and they’re successful too.”
UMatter students first take university success classes, and the rest of their courses are tailored to their career interests. The program’s administrators reach out to professors to let them know that a student is interested, and Roberts-Dahm said there is a lot of support amongst USFSP faculty. Jocelyn works to modify the curriculum and supports the students as they work with their academic mentors. Students must meet expectations, although the expectations might be modified.
Students in the program must have a diagnosed intellectual disability, a clean behavioral health record, and the desire and drive to attend college and go to classes. They must also commit to getting a job while on campus and after they graduate from the program. Roberts-Dahm said they provide a lot of support, but the goal is to build their independence.
“Competitive, integrated employment is the long-term goal,” said Dukes. “So that means they’re working in a typical work setting, earning typical wages, and doing the things that any other employee is expected to do at that point.”
Roberts-Dahm said the program is trying to branch outside of the typical employment opportunities that people with disabilities are often offered. She wants them to have a more sustainable career path in places they can grow and climb the corporate ladder, just like anyone else.
“We’re trying to really go deeper through this experience and give them a heartier career trajectory.”
Roberts-Dahm said UMatter is creating a business advisory council with business leaders across the Tampa Bay area. Jocelyn creates career assessments for students and tries to figure out what their interests are. She said the students are interested in career fields such as early childhood education, health care, criminology, environmental science and mass media communications. Roberts-Dahm added they are always looking for internship and employment opportunities for their students in the area.
UMatter students hail from all over the state, and Roberts-Dahm said they accept out-of-state students as well. She said there are about 300 similar programs nationwide, but Dukes was quick to point out that number is not as large as it may seem.
“It may seem like 300 is a big number, but actually, that’s about 4% of colleges and universities nationwide,” said Dukes. “When you think about the number of colleges and universities, it’s really not a lot.”
The gift will allow UMatter to eventually extend across all three USF campuses and increase its enrollment. It will also endow a professorship so the program can have a permanent, protected faculty member on campus with expertise in higher education and disability.
Roberts-Dahm called the program’s donors amazing and said some even helped the students move into their dorms.
“Just to have someone in the community that is so supportive, and that is like our cheerleaders for this program, I think it means so much to these students,” she said. “For outside community members to come and support our program – it’s huge.”
In honor of the Hafers’ donation, the university has renamed UMatter the Eileen Hoffman Hafer UMatter Program.