By Sarah Sell, University Communications and Marketing
As a student with an intellectual disability, 21-year-old Luke King wasn’t sure if he could ever attend college. But thanks to an inclusive postsecondary education program, the Sarasota native spent the past two years at USF St. Petersburg and is now ready to pursue a career and live on his own.
King and five others are the first cohort of students to graduate from the Eileen Hoffman Hafer UMatter Program, receiving a certificate of completion at the end of the Spring 2023 semester. This innovative program provides young adults with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to experience higher education and campus life, learning social skills and career training along the way.
“I always wanted to come somewhere where I could make changes and be more confident to do other things in the world,” King said. “It’s not something that comes to you; it’s something that you have to work to get and hope that things work out.”
King joined UMatter in its inaugural year in 2021. The program allows students to pursue their academic passions and have a true college experience by living in residence halls, attending sporting events and being part of student clubs. King joined the USF Sailing team and hopes to pursue a career in business and marketing. He has an internship this summer at Ceridian in St. Petersburg.
“I’ll be living in an apartment. I’m excited but also nervous because I’ve always been on campus, had a meal plan, and not had to think about food or how much it’s going to cost me,” King said.
With support from professional staff and mentors from USF’s College of Education, participants take topical courses that teach social skills and independent living. Students learn how to do laundry, grocery shop, budget and make healthy lifestyle choices. In addition, students take actual college courses that align with their career path.
“There is a need for inclusive postsecondary education programs on college campuses,” said Jayme Joslyn, UMatter director. “The passion they have for learning, for succeeding and for being a contributing citizen in their community has been astounding.”
Joslyn said that research shows people with intellectual disabilities want to work, and once they are in a job, they don’t leave.
“They are your best workers and dedicated to the job,” she said. “We’ve created a program that can help support the workforce, especially where there are shortages in the hospitality industry, education and business fields.”
To qualify for the program, students must be 18, have a high school diploma and have a documented intellectual disability. The term is used when there are limits to a person’s ability to learn at an expected level and function in daily life compared to peers. People with Down syndrome and some with autism spectrum disorder can fit into this classification.
“I want people to know that disabled people are humans too,” said Logan Lavery, a UMatter student who also graduated from the program in May. “I want to teach because I really want to make a difference in kids’ lives.”
Lavery recently interviewed for a teacher’s assistant position. Her classmate Marla Sax also had an interview at a local movie theatre.
“I think it would be a cool new experience,” Sax said. “It’s going to be hard to live by myself, but I don’t want to live with my mom forever.”
The UMatter program was launched in 2020 through a $900,000 grant awarded by the Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities. In 2021, USF received a $1.2 million gift from Andrew and Eileen Hafer to help fund its operations and initiatives.
In addition to the six graduates, five students are entering their second year, and another cohort of ten is starting in August. The program is only available on the St. Petersburg campus with a proposed expansion to the Tampa campus in approximately two years.