Photo courtesy of Ethan Wasserman.
Friday, Feb. 15, the RAM Initiative students and their peer mentors took time out of their busy schedules to chat with The Quad.
Emily Catherine Scott is one of the first RAM students at West Chester University. As a student, Scott works hard in her classes to get good grades. Scott is an active member in Best Buddies, Autism Speaks, SAC club (Student Activities Council), CEC (Council for Exceptional Children), Adaptive PE club, and Special Olympics.
“We go to classes; we get twelve credits. It is a wonderful program. The peer mentors help the students, like Nate and I,” Scott says.
Scott is working on trying out for the cheerleading squad and has an internship. On Mondays, she sets up trays with ingredients for a nutrition class. On Wednesday mornings, she cooks and sets up an oatmeal bar for the faculty.
Nathan Seagraves is another RAM student at West Chester University. As a student, Seagraves jokes, “I study…sometimes.” Seagraves goes to class and interns at the WCUTV weekly and our very own WCUR radio station in Sykes. He takes pictures, and also meets with and socializes with his peer mentors.
One of the peer mentors for the program is JoAnn Clark. Clark works to help the students in the RAM Initiative program achieve their academic and social goals in any way that she can. Clark works as a point of contact with other clubs on campus to communicate, promote inclusion and educate the people of West Chester University about the RAM Initiative.
I got to hear from Dr. Lepore, who is often referred to as “Doc” by her students. Dr. Lepore was part of the team that devised the program, wrote the proposals to the university, Middle States Commission for Higher Education and to the U.S. Department of Education, for the program to be official.
Besides doing things like writing grants, proposals and public relations pieces for awareness, Dr. Lepore oversees the day to day operations of the program. And oh my, does she do a lot. Dr. Lepore meets with the RAM Initiative students, confers with faculty on modifications needed for students and helps mentors and GAs to plan homework time, class support and seminars—a busy lady, for sure.
So, what is the RAM Initiative?
“It is a program for college students with intellectual disabilities,” Scott says. “We go to classes; we get twelve credits. It is a wonderful program. The peer mentors help the students, like Nate and I, do their homework and spend time with us doing some activities together.”
Seagraves chimes in, “It is for kids with disabilities to get to experience college.” He jokes, “…and get away from their parents.”
Clark adds, “The RAM Initiative gives people with Intellectual Disabilities, ages 18-24, an opportunity to experience higher education and all that goes along with that. The students in the program are placed in courses and internships that align with their passions and goals after the program to gain practical skills and training.”
Dr. Lepore adds, “It’s a two-year inclusive post-secondary education experience. The RAM initiative is ‘inclusive’ in that RAM students learn, live (pilot program in fall 2019), and interact with all students, faculty, staff and administrators on campus, not in segregated environments. The students take three or four classes on an audit basis, plus one work experience internship per semester and have a non-traditional application/admissions process. We take about 1 to 2 students per year.”
Walk me through the process. How does a qualifying student apply for the RAM Initiative?
“I had to write a 500-word essay about why I wanted to be in the RAM Initiative at West Chester. I sent the essay to Dr. Lepore and she asked me to come in for an interview.” Scott says, “They asked me a lot of things and we talked about what I wanted to do. Then, I had to wait to get an acceptance letter.”
Dr. Lepore elaborates, “The student must have had an IEP (individualized education program) in high school with a category designation of ‘intellectual disability’ only. The application, letters of recommendation, high school transcript and final IEP is submitted and you are asked to come in for an interview.”
What happens once the qualifying student is accepted?
Scott states, “Dr. Lepore surprised me with an acceptance letter. It was wonderful. Then, I met with my advisor to set up classes. Then, I met some of the first mentors I would have to help me at West Chester.”
Dr. Lepore says, “Peer mentors are assigned and go to classes with the students, support them with projects, homework and internships.”
How is the RAM Initiative college experience different? What kind of aid is provided in the difficult transition every young person faces from high school to college?
“Some things are different, but some things are the same,” Scott states. “Most people go right from high school into college, but I graduated in 2015. I had to get used to going to school again.”
Seagraves states, “We have peer mentors, we do check-ins. I meet on Fridays for independence and leadership seminars.”
What does RAM stand for? It’s not just a pun on our mascot, I’m sure.
“Rams up!” Scott says, “It stands for ‘real achievement matters,’ because it does!”
“It is important to teach individuals with intellectual disabilities the skills they need to succeed once they are faced with real life challenges. The RAM Initiative allows them to interact with people who they otherwise might not,” Clark states.
“In high school, a RAM Initiative student may have learned in an environment only with other students with disabilities. Here, at West Chester, they get to interact with a more diverse and inclusive group of students.”
Where is the ‘home base’ for the RAM Initiative?
Scott says, “Monica Lepore is the cofounder of the program. We do a lot of work with Ethan, our mentor, and meetings for RAM Initiative in her office.”
“We meet a lot at Doc’s office,” says Seagraves. Dr. Lepore warmly describes herself as the home base for the RAM Initiative.
What does the RAM Initiative do for our West Chester University community?
Clark states, “The RAM Initiative gives the West Chester community the opportunity to realize that a disability is just one, small part of who a person is, and we, the West Chester community, are more alike than different than people who have Intellectual Disabilities.”
Dr. Lepore states, “The Hallmarks of West Chester University are civilty, diversity and inclusion. The RAM initiative is all three. Students on campus learn that people with intellectual disabilities want to learn, have fun, get a job, join a club, volunteer, contribute and have a valued role in our community,” Lepore says. “Having students with intellectual disabilities in classes with everyone else provides everyone with a unique perspective of topics through their eyes.”
Why did you, personally, choose to get involved in the RAM Initiative?
Seagraves states, “I wanted to go to college because my friends have and told me about how fun it is. How classes can be hard and easy and the parties they go to. I want to learn more and get experience.”
Scott states, “I love West Chester so much. I know a lot of people. West Chester is like a home to me.”
Clark states, “I got involved with the RAM Initiative because one of my main goals in life is to be an advocate for inclusion. I want to end the stigma that surrounds people with disabilities and normalize the role of individuals with disabilities in everyday life. I strive for a world where people with disabilities are integrated and accepted in any setting. Accommodations and change helps people grow in ways that they didn’t know was possible.”
Dr. Lepore adds, “I conduct the Special Olympics Teams here on campus. The young Olympians lamented that they wished they could go to college here and I helped to achieve that.”
Is the RAM Initiative active on other campuses? If not, is that something that the initiative is working toward?
Dr. Lepore states, “This program is part of our campus, unique to us, but we are part of a movement of other universities doing this. We are part of something called the PA Inclusive Higher Education Consortium, where we share ideas throughout the state through conference calls and face-to-face conferences. We are a proud member of the DREAM Partnership, which gave us the grants to actually start the program. We could not have got this off the ground without DREAM!”
What else would you like West Chester to know about the RAM Initiative?
“That’s it’s a lot of fun to be a student at West Chester.” Seagraves says.
Scott says, “You should join the RAM Initiative so you can get the experience. You could be a peer mentor.”
Kirsten Magas is a third-year student majoring in English with minors in biology and creative writing. KM867219@wcupa.edu