Widener Alumna Spearheads Inclusive Higher Ed Program
Widener introduced an inclusive higher education program on campus at the start of the fall semester. Funded by a $60,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Institute of Higher Education Consortium, the program enrolled three students with intellectual disabilities (ID) in the one-year certification program.
Research shows students with ID benefit from better social, occupational and academic outcomes while enrolled in higher education. The program is an opportunity for the students to be immersed in the authentic college experience and participate in traditional academic and social activities.
Funding for the program was secured by Julie Heydeman, a recent graduate who is continuing her education at Widener by earning a master of social work degree. Through her academic and volunteer work in the disability field, Heydeman saw the value of bringing an inclusive education program to Widener for both the program participants and the campus community.
“In my experience as a personal care assistant, I’ve seen medical professionals, and professionals in different fields, seem somewhat uncomfortable with this population of people with ID or any disability,” Heydeman explained. “Just having the exposure and the connection can have such an impact on people’s professional careers when they graduate.”
Earning a certificate also opens the door for the students with ID to pursue their academic interests. For Winnie Downey, 49, her passion to correct social injustices and be a voice for others, especially those with ID, led her to study social work in the certificate program.
“It’s really hard being a person with a disability in this country,” said Downey. “There are too many people with special needs that don’t know how to socialize. I want to be an advocate so that they have the social aspect of going to school and getting involved in clubs and sports to meet friends.”
After she completes her certificate, Downey plans to enroll in Widener’s bachelor of social work program.
“I want to show everyone who said ‘you’ll never make it in college,’” Downey added.
In addition to the academics, the program teaches how to maintain a school-work balance. It’s an important skill since Downey and her peers, Sara Hudson, 29, and David Perry, 25, take classes around their work schedules. But, Hudson, an employee at Wawa, enjoys the extra workload from classes.
“I like working and I like to study,” Hudson said. “I would like to to stay in the program…and take classes in photography and computers.”
Students in the program are paired with mentors to offer support and guidance when needed. Ainsley Feyock, a junior early childhood and special education major, mentors Perry, who is enrolled in history and freshmen seminar classes and is a long-time employee in the Pride Café.
Working as a mentor allows Feyock to stay active in the special needs community while earning her degree and spending time with Perry who she’s become close with.
“An extra buddy is nice to have,” Feyock said.
When funding was secured in May 2018, Heydeman, with guidance from Beth Barol, the social work associate director and professor, led the program’s development and collaborated with campus resources such as Disability Services, Academic Support Services, Office of Student Life, Student Health Services, Career Design and Development and Enrollment Services.
“We are learning a lot and getting feedback from the students in the program, faculty, and staff. I have been amazed and grateful for the receptiveness of students and faculty and am really feeling the Widener pride,” Heydeman said.
Heydeman added that the focus now is to ensure the program continues so that Downey, Hudson and Perry, and other students with ID, can participate in the learning experiences at Widener.