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Finding Their Wings

Oklahoma’s first four-year, fully inclusive certificate program for students with mild to moderate intellectual or developmental disabilities continues to change lives.

Jennifer Zehnder
March 28, 2020

On her Facebook page, Alaine Octavia Lambert (Lainey Lou) shares photos of friends, family, fellowship, and fun. Under a Life Events subheading and beneath a blue circle with a white graduation cap, it notes, “Started school at Northeastern State University, Sept. 11, 2018.” The Muskogee sophomore is one of a handful of students enjoying educational opportunities and exploring future career paths in a program designed especially for those with Down syndrome, autism spectrum, and similar disabilities.

In May 2018, NSU joined LeadLearnLive to create the RiverHawks Scholar Program, the first of its kind in Oklahoma. A fully inclusive, four-year, post-secondary certificate opportunity for those with intellectual or developmental disabilities, the program’s goals are based on four pillars: academics, social skills, independent living, and career development. The ultimate goal is for the scholars to be able to live independently and be gainfully employed in something they enjoy after they complete the program.

NSU alumnus Justin Chase of Coweta brings more than 25 years of education experience to his position as the director of the RiverHawks Scholar Program (RHS).

“Transition programs are a new concept in the United States,” Chase explains. “The successful outcomes these programs provide not only change the lives of the students but also their families and the state by adding diverse individuals who live and work in our communities. Upon completion of the four-year program, these students receive social, career, and academic skills that lead them to life success.”

Each semester, RHS students take two traditional university classes in an area of interest, as well as one program class. Traditional classes can be taken with or without earning college credit. Students opting for noncredit still receive full course content and required classwork, but have a modified curriculum based on their abilities. Each scholar spends six hours a week with tutors. Students choosing for-credit classes must adhere to standard admissions guidelines and will not have modifications to the curriculum.

Social skills are especially important and woven into every aspect of the program, just as they are an aspect of the college experience for any student. Mentors are particularly important.

“The mentor program is part of the program we’re excited about,” Chase notes. “It partners our students with peer mentors and fitness mentors.

“If you think about it, one of the scariest parts about going to college is not knowing anybody. Who are my friends? Who do I hang out with? Who do I eat with? Our college mentors fill that important role.”

Trained peer mentors are assigned to each student in the areas of socialization, navigating college life, and physical fitness. Scholars participate in the campus activities of their choice, along with required membership in an active club/organization of their choice. Fitness mentors help students create a fitness routine and stay engaged in physical fitness activities.

The RiverHawks Scholar Program is a traditional college experience complete with residence life. Scholars make their college home in on-campus housing with student assistants who meet multiple times a day to assist with routines, including personal health, hygiene, and even life lessons such as financial literacy.

Students are placed in time-limited job sampling and paid and unpaid internships throughout their four years, charting a path to meaningful employment in a career of their choice. RiverHawks Scholars are expected to show satisfactory progress in all aspects of the program.

Now in its second year, RHS program leaders have their sights set on increasing enrollment, as well as becoming certified as a Comprehensive Transition Program, a federal designation from the U.S. Department of Education — which would allow students to receive federal financial aid.

In the meantime, a recent partnership with the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services allows eligible students up to $3,000 per semester for tuition, room, board, and paid internships. Students must be DRS clients with an individual plan for employment, 18-24 years old, and enrolled in the NSU RiverHawks Scholar Program. The initial contract expires on June 30, 2020, and includes two one-year options to renew.

For more information, call 918-444-3711 or visit nsuok.edu/RHScholar.

April 2020 Cover