When Joshua Williams, a special-needs student, started to think about college, his parents were surprised about the lack of options. Joshua is headed off to college, and his parents have a plan of their own.
SOON, families all over America and in the Puget Sound region will be celebrating high school graduations and the college decisions of their children. Our family will be doing the same — even though a year ago, we didn’t think that was possible.
Our oldest son, Joshua, has special needs. He was born missing his 22nd chromosome and has a number of physical and developmental challenges. Joshua works hard at school and, thanks to an amazing nanny who set him up for success, he receives mostly As and Bs. It never occurred to Joshua that he wouldn’t be going to college.
Joshua has always attended classes with the general school population — at Clyde Hill Elementary, Chinook Middle School and the last four years at Bellevue High School. It has been an incredibly positive experience with teachers holding him to high expectations and students embracing him for all his “Joshyness.”
But during his junior year, when his classmates and friends were going on college tours, there didn’t seem to be any such options for Joshua.
His idea of college was grounded in trips to Oregon State University with his Dad and brother where he saw kids living in dorm rooms, eating in dining halls, big-time football (albeit not always winning), and all the trappings that come with living on a campus and being part of a community of students.
At the time, our choices appeared to be limited to a “transition program” through the Bellevue School District on the Interlake High School campus or one of two nearby community college programs. We are grateful for these programs and for the opportunity they offer to students with special needs to continue to grow and learn after high school. We knew we had a tough conversation with Joshua ahead of us to explain why he would not be donning a collegiate sweatshirt and attending football games.
Then, a friend told us about thinkcollege.net. One visit to the site, and our lives were changed.
Before we clicked on the site, we did not know Joshua’s definition of college existed for special-needs students. We were wrong.
In fact, there are more than 260 college options for students with special needs on campuses around the country. Just as there is great diversity in the needs and capacities of special needs students, there is great diversity in the types of programs that are available. However, among this comprehensive list we found a number of state universities — including Clemson, Georgia, Iowa, UCLA and Utah State — that fully integrate students with special needs into campus life.
We began our search in earnest. We bought brightly colored poster board and began sorting the schools by experiences Joshua cared about: football team; on-campus living; and classes that had extra help for students who need support. Of course, Mom and Dad had a slightly different list of criteria: established program with a track record of keeping kids like Joshua safe; highly programmed after-class hours to ensure students are not lonely; and courses focusing on life skills in addition to academics.
Our rankings landed us at open houses at Clemson University, University of Iowa and Utah State University. In the end, Joshua accepted an offer from the Iowa REACH (Realizing Educational and Career Hopes) program. As many graduating seniors will say about their decision, it just felt right.
REACH is a mature program that has eyes wide open about the challenges of serving this population and a dedication to setting these students up for success that was both humbling and inspirational. And, they had a Big Ten football team! Joshua is going to be a Hawkeye this fall.
As excited as we are about this amazing opportunity for Joshua and our family, we are sad to report that there is no similar program here in the Pacific Northwest. We live in an area blessed with several major universities within driving distance. Our community embraces diversity and inclusion. And, yet, there is nothing like the Iowa REACH program at any of the major universities in Oregon or Washington.
It is time for our community to expand beyond “transition programs” and to think bigger about the potential of all of its students. Once we get Joshua off to college, we hope to be a part of making the first class of special-ed students attending college as Huskies, Cougars, Vikings, Beavers, Ducks, Wildcats or Eagles. We don’t need all Northwest universities to offer this kind of program — let’s start with one.
A defining statement of Joshua’s life came after a full day at the Clemson open house where he asked, “What ability do they think I don’t have?” After hearing the phrase “students with disabilities” over and over again, he was perplexed by how the descriptor connected to him. Joshua has spent his whole life surrounded by teachers, administrators and friends who celebrated his uniqueness, saw his potential and had high expectations for him.
We couldn’t be happier that the University of Iowa builds on the inclusive experience he had in Bellevue schools and affords Joshua the opportunity to live his college dream. Our hope is that at least one of the outstanding universities in our area will develop a program that champions the success of students like Joshua.