One Person’s Vision is a University’s Historic Moment

Aug 29, 2018

Years ago, a mom of an Adapted Physical Education student and some Special Olympians asked Monica Lepore, a Special Olympics coach, if she knew about any Inclusive Higher Education programs. Many of her Special Olympians were graduating from high school and asked why their local college, West Chester University, did not have a program for them.

Pictured at West Chester University in PA are Professor of Kinesiology Monica Lepore; Emily Scott, RAM Initiative student; Nate Seagraves, RAM Initiative student; Associate Professor of Special Education Claire Verden; Ethan Wasserman, RAM Initiative intern (Photo credit: Erica C. Thompson)

“I wondered myself! So I talked with families of students with intellectual disabilities who are in high school or just finished and they all supported this initiative. So, students themselves, and their families motivated me to start RAM (Real Achievement Matters) Initiative with Claire and Bruce,” said Monica.

RAM Initiative is an inclusive post-secondary education program for individuals with intellectual disabilities at West Chester University in Pennsylvania.

To start the RAM Initiative, Monica got her Masters in Special Education. Monica works with Claire Verden and Bruce Norris to recruit and train mentors, review and select qualified applicants, meet with advisors, seek out and obtain internships, supervise grad assistant and interns, and etc.

On August 26, 2018, West Chester University officially launched the RAM initiative, a two year post-secondary program designed for students with intellectual disabilities between the ages of 18-24. RAM students will live, interact with faculty, and learn just like any other student.

“Our students want to be treated with respect, not pity; they want support, not to have someone do things for them. They want to do whatever the other students on campus are involved with like clubs, spectator sports or sport participation, etc,” says Monica.

RAM students attend school full time and have the same privileges as any other student. They may select courses from the general course offerings and have the option to take classes on an Audit basis or for credit. RAM’s goal is to support students in achieving their goals of being independent, employable, and educated.

The West Chester University RAM Initiative is comprised of developing 4 core elements:

  • Academics: Each semester, RAM students will work with an advisor to select 9 out of 12 credits in the academic area based on their employment and education goals. They will have access to academic support in the classroom, homework, tutoring, and inclusion in the typical Academic Success Workshops from the Learning Assistance Resource Center.
  • Career and Employment: Each semester, RAM students will complete a 3 credit employment internship. The internship will begin with direct support from peer ambassadors with support gradually fading over time. The goal is for students to become independent individuals with a fulfilling job.
  • Independent living: RAM students have the opportunity and are encouraged to live on campus with students without disabilities. They will join dorm living with ambassadors (peer mentors) helping with cooking, laundry, and finding fun things to do outside the classroom. They will also participate in new student programs including seminars that teach safety and independence. Just like any other residential student, RAM students will be required to attend dorm meetings and workshops. Monica hopes to have independent living for RAM students by 2019.
  • Healthy Living: RAM students will be required to take one health, mindfulness, or physical activity class. They may use the Student Health Center, Student Recreation Center, and Wellness Education Programs.

It was a challenge for Monica and her team to develop the RAM initiative. The hardest part was securing financial support.

Pictured at West Chester University in PA are Emily Scott, RAM Initiative student; Ethan Wasserman, RAM Initiative intern; Nate Seagraves, RAM Initiative student (photo credit: Erica C. Thompson)

All their hard work was well worth it! The Middle States Association of Higher Education Accreditation approved the RAM Initiative and acceptance letters were sent out to the first two RAM students.

According to Monica, the entering RAM students are “very excited, filled with pride, and already feel successful just because they are going to college.”

“We are ready! Our students have schedules, we are ready to send out our first letters to faculty, and we have training set up for 8 mentors on August 26th! We are excited to work with our graduate assistant, Hannah Cunliffe, our consumer advocate Maggie Cunliffe, and our intern Ethan Wasserman as our historic first group to launch this program!” said Monica.

Without the RAM initiative, students could be doing a number of things such as working part time jobs, volunteering, going to a different school with a similar program, or simply staying home and watching TV.

It’s an amazing moment in the history of West Chester University.

“An inspirational story of a person’s vision and a university who worked together to create a new educational option for persons with intellectual disabilities.” – Doug Bergman, President/CEO of UCP of Sacramento

P.S. – If you live in West Chester, Pennsylvania and would like to apply for the RAM Initiative with West Chester University, please submit an application 6 months before your first semester.

“I recommend that you should take a workshop on how to use a laptop, email, open a document and save it. I recommend that you learn how to make a resume before you apply to college and that you have a mock interview with someone first before your college interview. Also, that you write your dreams down in pictures or words so that you have a clear idea of why you want to go to college and what path you might want to take,” says Monica.

RAM Initiative is geared towards students with intellectual disabilities who do not have a traditional academic diploma or standardized test scores. Prospective students must have finished a minimum of 4 years of high school and be between the ages of 18-24. The students should also have been in special education classes with an individualized education program. RAM students will be selected through West Chester University’s traditional application process of campus interviews and meeting with various stake holders.

Learn more about West Chester University’s RAM Initiative