The Path that Led Me to Think College
My experience with inclusive higher education began at the University of Oklahoma (OU) as I was completing my graduate studies. I was fortunate enough to watch the Zarrow Center team at OU bring the Sooner Works program to life and had the opportunity to work with the first two cohorts of students. I referred to my role in Sooner Works as “the fun job” – spending most of my time supporting students as they learned to navigate campus, classes, and social activities.
The team at Sooner Works regularly reflected on current practices and discussed ways to evaluate the program and ensure students had a fulfilling experience and were regarded as students of the university first and foremost. To do this, we collected program data and feedback from students, instructors, staff, and other stakeholders, connected with similar programs in nearby states, and consulted Think College (TC) resources. With the data we collected, we were able to individualize the university experience for students to match their interests and guide their exploration of careers and similar opportunities outside of what they already knew. The proposed outcomes of inclusive higher education programs became clear when I saw students excel in their internship experiences, present coursework amongst peers in inclusive classes, and grow by leaps and bounds in independent living skills. Taking part in the facilitation of a fulfilling and worthwhile inclusive higher education program for students with intellectual disabilities was the highlight of my graduate work.
Later, when the Research Associate position opened at TC, I knew it was my chance to integrate this newfound love of inclusive higher education with my training in research. Coming from a special education teaching and administrative background, most of my work experiences were of the “drinking water out of firehose” variety. When I started working with TC, I expected to find myself in a similar working environment. However, I am very happy to report that my experience has been nothing like I imagined!
TC is the most systematic and thoughtful organization I have been a part of, which is a good thing since they are also home to the TC National Coordinating Center which supports 22 current TPSID grantees. Because the team at TC planned out what will be done each year of the five-year grant, I find myself working within a system rather than trying to create one from scratch. As I have come to learn, the goal is to use the knowledge we have gained over the past 10+ years to strengthen existing programs, help establish new programs, and most importantly, support positive outcomes for the amazing students who enter these programs.
In my relatively short time with TC, I have gained a better understanding of the impact inclusive higher education programs have on students and college campuses just by analyzing program data. Not only is there is so much to learn about the way each program operates and creates inclusive spaces and experiences for students, but we can also see the wide-reaching impact that programs have on higher education and on the lives of students who have attended or are currently enrolled in these programs. For example:
- From Cohort 2 of TPSID grant funded programs we see that the percentage of students enrolled in inclusive courses grew over a five-year period and there was an increase in the percentage of students with a paid employment position over a four-year period (Grigal et al., 2021).
- We can also see that COVID-19 had an impact on students with a paid position in year five of the same Cohort 2 report. The full report can be seen here. From this, we have begun to investigate the impact COVID-19 has had on other program and student outcomes.
- Looking ahead, we have also recently released considerations for naming or re-naming programs based off our evaluation of existing program names (see: Papay et al., in press).
Looking at data did not always feel meaningful in the moment but became so much more real and exciting when put into context of the work the TC team has done over the years and the significance it has on the future of students with intellectual disabilities.
Grigal, M., Hart, D., Papay, C., Wu, X., Lazo, R., Smith, F., & Domin, D. (2021). Annual Report of the Cohort 2 TPSID Model Demonstration Projects (Year 5, 2019–2020). Boston, MA: University of Massachusetts Boston, Institute for Community Inclusion. https://thinkcollege.net/resource/program-evaluation-student-outcomes/annual-report-of-the-cohort-2-tpsid-model-demonstration
Papay, C., Choiseul-Praslin, B., & Weir, C. (in press). What’s in a name? Analysis and reflections on naming of postsecondary education programs for students with intellectual disability. Accepted for publication in Journal of Inclusive Postsecondary Education.
About the post author: Belkis Choiseul-Praslin is a Research Associate for the Think College Network. She loves working with data, formatting documents without being asked, and playing with her super cute dog, Mango.