BOONE, N.C. — Ten years ago, Courtney Bell was a trailblazer in Appalachian State University’s Scholars with Diverse Abilities Program (SDAP) — an inclusive college experience designed for students with intellectual disabilities.
Bell, who was the sole SDAP student in 2011–12, enrolled in the newly established program with hopes to become more independent and develop skills she could use in a job. She took courses in nutrition, music and dance, and hospitality management, and held a job in Campus Dining (then known as Food Services) on campus.
A decade later, the Boone native lives in a group home, is employed through Watauga Opportunities Inc. and volunteers regularly in her community.
Since its inception, the two-year program has grown to serve approximately 10 scholars per year and it will serve 13 scholars in the upcoming 2022–23 school year. It offers instruction in academic, career, independent living, community and social engagement skill development and is one of three programs of its kind in North Carolina.
After completing the program, students earn a Collegiate Achievement Award and walk at the commencement ceremony with graduates from the Reich College of Education.
Beginning in fall 2023, SDAP will expand to 20 scholars and will extend its duration to an optional four-year program. First-year students enrolled in the 2021–22 academic year will be the first with the opportunity to participate in the longer program.
“Over the years, SDAP Scholars have touched the lives of thousands of people,” said Dr. Susan Hedges, SDAP program director and assistant professor of special education.
“Part of our mission at App State is to provide a transformative experience — and I see this happen every day through SDAP. Not just with our 10 scholars, but with the hundreds of volunteers, interns and students who interact with them,” Hedges said.
Scholars live in on-campus residence halls, take courses in their fields of interest, join clubs and student organizations, and work paid campus jobs. Just like degree-seeking students, SDAP Scholars design their class schedules based on career and personal goals.
Hedges said the four-year format will allow students to explore more interests and gain more experiences in building their independence, including living in off-campus housing. SDAP is partnering with App State’s Department of Nutrition and Health Care Management to offer additional education in health and wellness and in building healthy relationships.
“Like a lot of young adults, our SDAP students are in an exploratory phase when they come to App State,” Hedges said. “They come in thinking they want to do one thing, then develop new interests.”
The two-year program will still be an option, Hedges said, and scholars will need to apply to and be accepted into the additional two-year period.
Opportunities to engage
Student volunteers, academic peer supports, graduate teaching assistants and interns provide extra support needed by SDAP Scholars.
Sydney McKeaver, a senior from Mount Airy majoring in elementary education with a second academic concentration in exceptional learners, is the lead College Life Fellow for SDAP. In her role, she lives in the residence hall with SDAP Scholars, ensures room safety, helps scholars with daily tasks, plans weekend activities and oversees the other College Life Fellows.
McKeaver, who is enrolled in the Accelerated Admissions Program for App State’s master’s degree in reading education, completed internships with SDAP as an academic support peer — attending an elective course alongside her assigned scholar and helping them complete their coursework. She was also in the Best Buddies club, a program providing students and scholars an opportunity to engage in friendship and leadership development.
Working with SDAP Scholars has greatly enriched her time at App State, McKeaver said. “I have been able to see the scholars grow through their time in the program and have formed meaningful relationships with each one,” she said.
“The opportunity has supported me in my endeavors to become an educator,” she added. “I have gained experience working with individuals with intellectual disabilities and with other fellows supporting the scholars.”
Alumni of SDAP
Since SDAP began at App State, 30 scholars have completed the program, and the majority are working in paid, integrated employment.
Current scholars, graduates of SDAP, faculty, parents and student volunteers gathered to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the program on April 22. Several of the scholars performed music, presented videos of their work or spoke about their SDAP experiences.
Mieszko Kwiatkowski, an SDAP Class of 2017 graduate, displayed his artwork at the anniversary event. During his time at App State, Kwiatkowski focused on the visual arts and won the People’s Choice Award in a student art exhibition. As he completed his studies, he received support from App State’s Transportation Insight Center for Entrepreneurship to launch his own microbusiness, MieszoArt, based in Boone.
SDAP alumnus Tyler Shore, Class of 2021, said the program helped him make new friends and provided the opportunity to take courses he enjoyed. He recently shared his experiences with autism as a guest speaker in a class taught by Dr. Rebekah Cummings, a senior lecturer in University College’s First Year Seminar program.
Keiron Dyck, an SDAP Class of 2020 graduate, studied history while at App State. He said his favorite course was in public history, taught by Dr. Kristen Baldwin Deathridge, associate professor in the Department of History. Deathridge “opened my mind to possibilities in the field,” said Dyck, who is fascinated by history and enjoys sharing what he learns with others.
Inaugural SDAP Scholar Courtney Bell shared memories of her time at App State. Some of her favorite experiences included singing in the Gospel Choir and attending football and basketball games, she said, adding, “I had a blast.”
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About the Scholars with Diverse Abilities Program (SDAP)
Appalachian State University’s Scholars with Diverse Abilities Program (SDAP) provides students with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities access to an inclusive college educational experience. The program focuses on whole-person development, helping SDAP Scholars achieve their academic, social, personal and career goals. Scholars 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. Upon completion of the program, students receive a Collegiate Achievement Award. Learn more at https://sdap.appstate.edu.
About the Department of Reading Education and Special Education
The Department of Reading Education and Special Education offers innovative programs focusing on all facets of reading, writing, language arts and specific areas of special education. The Anderson Reading Clinic provides direct services to children with reading disabilities. Learn more at https://rese.appstate.edu.
About the Reich College of Education
Appalachian State University offers one of the largest undergraduate teacher preparation programs in North Carolina, graduating about 500 teachers a year. The Reich College of Education enrolls more than 2,000 students in its bachelor's, master's, education specialist and doctoral degree programs. With so many teacher education graduates working in the state, there is at least one RCOE graduate teaching in every county in North Carolina. Learn more at https://rcoe.appstate.edu.
About Appalachian State University
As the premier public undergraduate institution in the state of North Carolina, Appalachian State University prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The Appalachian Experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and to embrace diversity and difference. Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Appalachian is one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina System. Appalachian enrolls more than 20,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.