November 13, 2020 | Matt Kucinski

Two students smiling as they work on a computer
Note: This photo was taken in 2019 before COVID-related safety protocols were instituted.

For many students with intellectual disability, a higher education experience may seem unattainable, or limited at best.

So Calvin University has been working to open doors through a partnership with Ready for Life.

“Since 2007, the Ready for Life Academy (RFLA) has provided a college experience for young adults with intellectual disability,” said Kate Strater, assistant professor of education at Calvin. “These are students who have historically been excluded from higher education.”

Leading the way

Calvin has been a leader in creating inclusive communities. Heading into this fall, the institution was one of only five universities in the state of Michigan, and one of 300 in the U.S., to offer some type of inclusive higher education program.

Now, thanks to a $1.2 million Transition and Postsecondary Education for Students with Intellectual Disabilities (TPSID) grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Calvin is on a path to be the first university in Michigan to offer a Comprehensive Transition and Post-Secondary program.

“We continue to be a leader in the area of inclusive higher ed,” said Strater. “This grant now allows the funding for us to expand access to residence living, on-campus programs and services, and campus life for students with intellectual disability.”

From being to belonging

Up to this point, while students in the RFLA took classes on campus and participated in organized campus life activities, they were not officially enrolled as Calvin students and were not living on campus. This shift allows RFLA students to be enfolded more into the campus community, which organizers hope will lead to a greater sense of belonging.

“The academy fits squarely within the vision for inclusion here at Calvin,” said Kevin den Dulk, associate provost of Calvin global campus (an office that, as part of Vision 2030, is extending Calvin’s mission to reach new populations). “We’ve put a lot of emphasis in our From Every Nation statement on race and inclusion and that’s crucial, but this is another piece of a broader vision. The academy represents a learning community that has not been fully included in the traditional undergraduate mold. We see all people as image bearers of God, and we want anyone who wants to learn about God’s world to have an open door here at Calvin.”

“Ready For Life is thrilled that Calvin University received the TPSID grant. We feel through this grant opportunity the Ready For Life students will have a place of belonging as Calvin University students,” said Emily Perton, executive director of Ready for Life. “We look forward to growth in the partnership between Ready For Life and Calvin, and, we believe all Calvin University students, faculty and staff will be blessed by the enhanced partnership.”

“This is a particular community that we’ve had on campus for years, and so we are delighted that this grant allows us to provide a more equitable full college experience,” said Brian Bolt, dean of education at Calvin University. “We hope this leads to a greater sense of belonging, and we know that this will be to the benefit of our entire community.”

Preparing and supporting

Besides the mutual community benefit, the students will also now be able to earn a certificate not only from the RFLA, but also from Calvin University. In addition to the life skills courses they take through RFLA, they also are able to choose Calvin courses in an area of interest, such as ministry, creation care, or helping professions, to name a few.

“That credential from Calvin is intended to help students get employed,” said Bolt. “And, just like is the case with any other student, we are preparing them both for their first job and for life.”

The funds of the grant will be used to increase student access to campus programs and services and to make sure all the infrastructure is in place to support additional students; to provide an inclusive living and learning support system (including training opportunities for faculty and support staff); to fund a new partnership coordinator who will help build partnerships with the many internal resources for students (Center for Student Success, Career Services, Center for Counseling and Wellness, Service-Learning Center, Rhetoric Center, etc.) and help build external partnerships with employers and with local school districts; and some funds will be used for research and program evaluation.

And by becoming designated as a Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary program, enrollees can become eligible for federal financial aid.

In summary, the goal of the grant is to lean into Calvin’s Vision 2030, which aims to extend Calvin’s mission to new populations by demonstrating that Calvin is a hospitable and trusted place to seek one’s calling.

“A way to look at what we are doing through this grant is helping move students from a state of being among a larger group of people to a state of belonging to a community,” said Strater.

*The federal funding provided by TPSID accounts for 63% of grant program costs. The remaining 37% comes from non-governmental sources.

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