By Linda Coutant
The Scholars with Diverse Abilities Program (SDAP) is a grant-funded program that provides students with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities – known as SDAP Scholars – access to a two-year, inclusive college educational experience at Appalachian State University.
There are five SDAP Scholars on campus in spring 2017, and they are supported in class and in social and recreational activities by more than 60 fellow Appalachian student volunteers. They are also assisted by four graduate assistants, two interns, two tutors and seven special fellows, plus members of a student club called Appvocates.
Sophomore Alex Trejo-Sanchez, a special education major from Lincolnton, has been volunteering for almost two years, mentoring SDAP Scholars and letting them know he is “someone they can depend on.” The experience has “taught me how to be a good communicator, how to be well organized and a reliable person,” he said.
Psychology major Brianna Brooks ’16 volunteered for three years before graduating last December. She described the opportunity as “one of the most life-changing experiences” she had during college.
“I have loved getting to work with the students and seeing them graduate, accomplish their goals and grow as individuals,” she said prior to graduation. “Spending my time with these wonderful people has become the highlight of my days, and because of each of them my life has been changed for the better.”
Other majors represented by SDAP volunteers include education, social work, communication sciences and disorders, and music therapy. Program Director Anna Ward said she also has had volunteers from biology, English, health promotions, recreation management and other academic programs.
“The main traits we are looking for in volunteers are compassion, dependability and commitment,” Ward said.
“Our program is mutually beneficial,” Ward explained. “SDAP Scholars are able to experience inclusivity while being provided the support that they need to feel comfortable and the means to be successful. Concurrently, the volunteers and professors who interact with our students begin to better understand the lives of individuals with disabilities.”
Through the experience, Ward said volunteers report having a better understanding of differences in general. Also, students and professors who work with SDAP Scholars often begin considering how to better design teaching and learning with all learners in mind, specifically using a style called Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL provides flexibility in how information is presented, how students can demonstrate their knowledge and skills, and how they can be engaged. UDL also reduces barriers in instruction, by providing appropriate accommodations, supports and challenges while expecting high achievement from all students, including those with disabilities or limited English skills.
“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed having SDAP students participating in my classes,” said instructor Heather Lippard, who teaches in University College. In addition to seeing the SDAP Scholars grow, she said she has observed their tutors and classmates grow, too. “It’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience for all involved,” she said.
Many student volunteers are drawn to SDAP initially as a way to meet service-learning requirements for the courses. Yet, the program has about a 40 percent return rate on those service-learning students in the subsequent semesters, even without the need for service-learning hours, Ward said.
SDAP started in 2011 with one student, Courtney Bell, and has had nine students complete the program since 2013. They walk at the commencement ceremony with other Reich College of Education students.
The program works on whole-person development: academic, social, personal and career goals. The aim is for SDAP Scholars to grow as individuals and be able to obtain gainful employment that is meaningful to them.
When scholars complete the program, they receive a Collegiate Achievement Award. Graduates have gone on to work in fields such as the arts, cosmetology, athletics, assisted living and at an after-school program.
Just like traditional degree-seeking students, SDAP Scholars design their schedules based on career and personal goals. They may take any courses that interest them, with instructor approval. They also work on campus and in the community and complete internships related to their career goals.
From his volunteer role, Trejo-Sanchez said he has observed his mentees being able to surpass any obstacle. “The SDAP Scholars are personally a group of students that I admire,” he said.
“I would highly recommend the opportunity to volunteer with SDAP. This organization not only looks great on a resume, but it allows you to experience an awesome opportunity with the community,” said Trejo-Sanchez, who wants to pursue a master’s degree and Ph.D. in special education.
With its scholars, SDAP works to develop each of these areas:
“Our program is mutually beneficial: SDAP Scholars are able to experience inclusivity while being provided the support that they need... [and] the volunteers begin to better understand the lives of individuals with disabilities.”
– Anna Ward, SDAP director
Student volunteers of all majors and backgrounds are welcome. There is an application process, followed by a training session.
Private gifts will allow the program to do more.
SDAP supports scholars as they learn how to make their own decisions.