Originally published by the Augustana Mirror on October 6, 2016
Freshman Michael Cooper doesn’t like to get up early. Every morning from his room in Stavig Hall, he sets his alarm for 7 a.m. to make it on time for his 8 a.m. computer science class. Depending on the day, Cooper goes to two or three classes, eats lunch in the Commons and then goes to work out at the Elmen Center or spend time with friends.
Even though he’s been on campus for a month, Cooper said finding his way around has definitely been the most challenging part of transitioning from high school to college. That, and the cafeteria food. He likes his mom’s cooking a lot better.
These are the typical worries and routines for any college student, but Cooper, a video-game-loving, air-guitar-playing extrovert isn’t just another freshman.
Cooper, along with nine others, is part of Augie Access, a program that gives college-age students with learning disabilities the chance to take courses on campus. After three years of classes, students will leave with a certificate of completion and the tools to be competitively employable.
The need for meaningful employment after high school for students with special needs is what inspired special education professor Matt Johnson to help start Augie Access.
After receiving a $100,000 three-year federal grant, Augie Access kicked off last year with five students. One of those students was sophomore Wade Spillum.
Besides being in class for long periods of time, Spillum said he’s enjoyed living on campus and making friends through Augie Access.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned in Augie Access is not being afraid to try new things,” he said. “It’s cool to be involved in the community. I really liked going to late night bowling and stuff like that to meet new people.”
After he graduates from the program next spring, Spillum said one of his dream jobs is to be the owner of a bowling alley. Spillum loves to bowl, and after working in both a bowling alley and food service, he said the bowling alley life appeals to him more than pre-packaging food for eight hours a day.
Helping students get the kinds of jobs that will keep them interested and passionate is one of the primary goals of Augie Access, according to the program’s assistant coordinator Catherine Davis.
Each student is required to work either over the summer or part time throughout his or her three years.
While Spillum spent his time preparing food and helping bowlers, other Augie Access students, like sophomore Josh Brooks, fixed up cars. This year, he assists on the sidelines during Viking football games.
“Part of the grant requirement is that these students be ready for employment,” Davis said. “We really focus on employment, through internships, on campus jobs and summer work.”
Another large part of the program are peer navigators, Augustana students who are paired with an Augie Access student in what Johnson calls “a natural support system.” This peer interaction ensures Augie Access students are effectively integrated into campus life—they have someone to eat with in the Commons, go to football games with or just talk to about their triumphs and struggles.
“We all need friends,” Johnson said. “One reason why we have this transitional program between high school and the working is world is that these students don’t do as well when they don’t have peer interaction. Seeing that natural support happen on campus helps us know that these students will be successful.”
Though Augie Access is only in its second year, program coordinator Jessica Lamb said she hopes to keep it small enough to cater to individual students, while hopefully expanding its reach to accept out-of-state applicants.
After the grant expires next year, Johnson said the program’s leaders will be actively searching for similar grant opportunities to fund the program, but he hopes Augie Access will be part of campus for a long time.
“As a society, we need to get away from this idea of ‘different,’” Johnson said. “It’s taken us a long time to get to this point, but I think eventually programs like Augie Access will just become the norm across the country.”
For her part, Lamb said she can’t believe she gets to work at her dream job every day.
“I’m so deeply honored that I get to wake up every day and share in these students’ lives,” she said. “I love getting to see their tremendous gains.”
Cooper may still not enjoy setting his alarm for 7 a.m. every morning, but he said he’s grateful for his first few weeks at Augustana.
“The Augie Access program is a really good program,” he said. “It’s been a good start to college life, and it gives people with disabilities the chance to be successful.”