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.”
Two SDAP Scholars share what the Appalachian Experience means to them.
Anna Ward: So, the Scholars with Diverse Abilities Program, otherwise known as SDAP, is a program set up for people with intellectual disabilities. They come to the university for two years and it’s inclusive. These students have challenges in areas of academics and in areas…sometimes of social skills, or things that a lot of us take for granted in terms of day-to-day routine. So, I’d say what we really want for our students, the over-arching goal, is that they develop skills in self-advocacy and self-determination, so that when they finish they are able to communicate about themselves, talk about what they’re good at, and where they have challenges, and feel okay doing that. And then to learn how to make their own decisions, appropriate decisions, that will lead them to a more independent life. So, students with intellectual disabilities, or any disability, tend to be very reliant on their families and the families are strong advocates for them. We hear a lot of families who after high school they’re thinking, ‘Wow! What’s going to happen to my child?’ So when families come to us, they’re really seeking a way for their children to transition into a better life.
Victoria Hall:Before I came to SDAP it was really hard, but then I started loving it because I love to come here for school.
Louise Hall: Well, I think she wants her independence. She would like to learn the skills, so that she can go out and get a job. She’s very social, she likes people. She wants to meet more people and do different things with them. So this way she can broaden her interests just like any other freshman that comes to college, so that she’ll learn things that she may want to do in her life that thus far she hasn’t thought of.
VH:At first, I was a bit nervous. But then I met some old friends, so I started hanging out with them. They’re cool and funny; they make me laugh. When they see me, they call me Queen Victoria.
Robert Evans: I think the first day Robert I was shy; I wasn’t very open to people. Robert today, I’m just being myself and telling it how it is.
Delphine Anderson: Robert hopes to learn, here at Appalachian, more than anything how to survive in the real world. This should teach him how to get along with people, how to meet different people, how to interact with different people, because he has a nice personality, he’s a good person, he’s a learner, he wants to learn.
RE: Well, I think my momma is very glad that I went to college and get to experience the college life and meet different people and make friends.
DA: You know, he doesn’t want to be known as being different. He wants the same opportunities as everybody else, but he doesn’t want anything given to him. It gives them a goal that, ‘I can do this. If I work hard, I can be just like her. If that’s what I want, that means I’ve got to work twice as hard and I can do it.’ That’s why I think this program, the way it’s set up, it’s going to give them hope and that’s what everybody needs to be a better person.
AW: The student supports that are volunteers come in huge numbers, and we have over a hundred and if we break that down on a weekly basis, there are up to ten people working with each individual in the program per week.
Miriam Stapp: The volunteers that work with SDAP…I’ve been amazed to see how many there are on campus. So many students want to get involved, want to help, want to learn, want to be friends with the scholars in the program. They could be walking a scholar to a class to show them where the classroom is, it could be meeting them for lunch, just hanging out, talking, being friends really.
RE: I always have a volunteer, or someone to come with me to take notes or if I need other help in the classroom I’ve always got somebody in class to help me.
MS: Appalachian talks about diversity a lot, as do many college campuses. We can learn about disability rights, minority rights, all the different aspects there are to diversity. You can learn about them all day in a class room, but to truly understand the importance of diversity you have to have relationships with people who belong to those minorities. SDAP strives really hard to integrate community into the scholars lives, and I think the scholars and the other students of Appalachian both benefit a lot from that.
RE: Well, I’d like to thank my momma and I’d like to give a big thank you to the SDAP staff to give me the opportunity to have the college experience.
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.
A better understanding of differences
“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.
The goals of SDAP
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.