A trailblazer in inclusive education: UMSL’s Succeed Program celebrates 10 years transforming lives

by | May 12, 2023

Since its founding, Succeed has provided opportunities for UMSL students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to develop academic, living and vocational skills.
White woman with short hair and white sweater helps young black student with glasses in gray jacket and green shirt at computer

Volunteer and Internship Coordinator Heather Cowan works with Jaylin Brown. Over the course of its 10 years at UMSL, the Succeed Program has helped transform the lives of more than 150 students with intellectual and developmental disabilities such as Brown. (Photos by August Jennewein)

Andrew Holman has always aspired to earn a bachelor’s degree, dreaming of helping and teaching others. Historically, paths to that goal have been limited for students like Holman, who have intellectual and developmental disabilities, but the Succeed Program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis has worked tirelessly over the past decade to change that.

Since its founding in 2013, the postsecondary education program has provided opportunities for UMSL students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to develop academic, living and vocational skills as they work toward a two-year Chancellor’s Certificate or potentially matriculate to a degree program.

Holman is one of more than 150 students to benefit from Succeed over the years, and he’s also pushed the bounds of the program forward. This month, he graduated from the College of Education with a Bachelor of Educational Studies, realizing his dream and becoming one of the first Succeed alumni to earn an undergraduate degree.

“Succeed only enhanced that feeling of, ‘Hey, this is achievable; I can do this,’” Holman says.

He isn’t alone in his success. Fellow Succeed alumnus Finn Nardi-Warner joined Holman at commencement, having also earned a BES. Their accomplishments exemplify the Succeed Program’s evolution as it celebrates its 10th anniversary.

Education for everyone

UMSL community members from all corners of the university and a small group of outside partners initially established the program as a two-year course of study with on-campus housing, but it has grown considerably since its inception.

“I would say the most consistent thing that we had going for us, which is why you see where we are today and great things happening, is we always had the backing of the university,” says Associate Professor April Regester, who was instrumental in launching the program. “At every point in time, we had a champion.”

Now Succeed has a dedicated, full-time staff and a home in the College of Education. Succeed staff members include Kateland Davis, Rachel Hickey, Wen Zeng, Glee Schmitt, Madeline Siener, Donny Conner, Mary Harden, Heather Cowan and Aina Ferris. Succeed is also supported by dedicated adjunct instructors.

In recent years, it has also expanded programming for students beyond the Chancellor’s Certificate. That includes the implementation of the Succeed+ and Link programs. The former includes an additional year or more of experience and training, while the latter supports students such as Holman and Nardi-Warner who are pursuing a degree.

Andrew Holman, white man with glasses in blue and red baseball hat and blue UMSL t shirt

This spring, Andrew Holman graduated from the College of Education with a Bachelor of Educational Studies, becoming one of the first Succeed alumni to earn an undergraduate degree.

These paths are open to any student 18 or older and afford them the chance to earn industry-specific professional credentials that align with their individual goals, whereas many postsecondary education programs for students with intellectual disabilities end after two years and have age restrictions.

Succeed staff members have also worked purposefully to help socially integrate students into the UMSL and surrounding communities. They’ve continued to develop relationships with organizations on and off campus to employ students and also launched UMSL Social Peers, a yearlong program developed by Assistant Professor Lindsay Athamanah that pairs full-time undergraduate students from across campus with Succeed students to foster inclusivity.

Many of those recent efforts were supported by a 2020 Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities grant from the U.S. Department of Education, which provided $2.1 million in federal funding to augment the program.

“The TPSID grant has given us the ability to increase our staff and expand access to our program for more students,” Succeed Director Jonathan Lidgus says. “This is reflected in the hard work and dedication of our staff toward inclusion of students with intellectual and developmental disabilities in higher education.”

That work has garnered meaningful recognition, too. Last year, FOCUS St. Louis selected the Succeed Program for a What’s Right with the Region Award, recognizing it as an organization dedicated to the growth of the region and building an economy for the benefit of all. Succeed has also served as a model for other postsecondary education programs, including the University of Missouri–Columbia’s new PAWS program.

Success didn’t happen overnight, though. It was a learning process, especially in the early days, but the Succeed team moved step by step to meet the needs of students and to create a more equitable campus.

The first step toward success

Regester traces the origins of the Succeed Program to the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008. In the wake of its enactment, the U.S. Department of Education placed a greater emphasis on access to higher education for students with intellectual disabilities – a group that had historically been marginalized.

By 2010, federal funding became available for postsecondary education programs supporting that mission, and Regester had begun discussing the possibility of one at UMSL with several people, including Deborah Baldini, then associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, as well as Kathy Meath, Mark Keeley and Sharon Spurlock of St. Louis Arc, an organization that empowers and provides support for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“Baldini is a parent of a young adult with Down Syndrome, so she had a personal interest in having something like this,” Regester says. “She was the administrative leader that was our first champion at that time.”

The team missed the window for federal funding but knew some sort of seed funding was necessary. Regester, Baldini and the St. Louis Arc representatives sought grants from three local disability organizations and secured approximately $200,000 for one year of programming. With money in hand, the group brought the proposal for Succeed to the provost and deans in 2012.

“Legend says that we were the only program to ever come to the meeting and then be approved on the spot,” Regester says with a laugh. “We had some potential students that came to that meeting and talked about their personal experience of wanting to attend higher education and what that meant to them. I thank those two students because you had a bunch of administrators who were looking at someone who said, ‘Hey, I want to go to college. You have an opportunity to make it happen.’ They could not say no.”

The program was approved for a Chancellor’s Certificate in 2013 and began with a cohort of nine students the first year.

Lessons learned

During the early years, the program was bolstered by advocates across campus including Lidgus, who was the director of Residential Life and Housing at the time; Carole Basile, then dean of the College of Education; Curt Coonrod, then vice provost for student affairs; and D’Andre Braddix, then assistant dean of students.

In his initial conversation with Baldini, Braddix remembers being unsure of how the program would be integrated into campus. However, after a trip to observe a similar program at another university, Braddix returned energized by what he witnessed.

“It just inspired me to come back to campus and be a champion and advocate for the program,” he says.

The Succeed team learned many lessons during that time. Regester recalls navigating how to provide support for parents and family members who were used to K-12 programs that typically allowed parental figures a large amount of input in their child’s experience. The team had to gauge what level of support families needed for that transition. Grace Francis, former director of Succeed, notes that they had to reconsider their approach in some cases.

“With families, instead of saying, ‘your child’ or ‘child,’ we would say ‘the student’ or ‘the young adult,’” Francis says. “Those little changes were really instrumental in how people shaped their expectations and their perceptions of these young adults, these tuition-paying students. I think that mindset really helped elevate where Succeed is now.”

Andrew Johnson Kliethermes, Succeed assistant director, says the program also shifted from broad directives to person-centered planning. That focus on individualization and independence informed key tenets of the program that are still employed today.

“We really focus on, throughout the four semesters of the program, enhanced independence and self-determination in our four main pillars: live, learn, work and play,” he explains. “So, independent living skills, strong social network and connections to campus and culture. Then vocational exploration and experience, building a professional network, having work experience and a good idea of what a student wants to do as far as providing for themselves for an enviable life after graduation. Academic exploration, too. So, being a full-time enrolled college student with a full academic schedule and being immersed in an inclusive environment, where peers are learning from them and they’re learning from their peers.”

Major milestones

Despite some initial growing pains, the Succeed Program has gone on to see many successes during the past 10 years and become a vital part of the university.

Lidgus says implementing the program’s residential component, in which Succeed students live with undergraduate students in Oak Hall, was a major breakthrough.

“We really helped to grow what inclusive housing looks like for this population,” he says. “That turned out to be one of the things we, as a program, have been known for in terms of how we include students in the residence halls and train and support the residential life staff. Our first milestone was growing and developing inclusive housing.”

He adds that the program’s work pillar has had a significant impact on the university as well.

“We love our students getting jobs because working on campus is actually a learning experience for all students,” Lidgus says. “When you work in housing or you work at the rec center, they have their own employment outcomes for student workers that help teach leadership skills, social skills and grow students as employees. Our students are learning there, and our students are teaching future workers at the college level to work with individuals with disabilities.”

Other milestones include the FOCUS St. Louis award and TPSID grant, which has gone toward expanding industry-recognized pathways, enhancing support and partnerships in existing programming under the leadership of Assistant Professor Magen Rooney-Kron and building statewide awareness and knowledge of postsecondary education programs through the development of showmecollege.com. The Link program, in particular, has been a major step forward.

“The Link program is an example of how students have pushed this program to be what it is today,” Kliethermes says. “One student said, ‘I want to get a degree after completing Succeed,’ so we helped them matriculate. From that one student, we now have 18 degree-seeking students that we support across numerous colleges. That one student started the idea of there being domains of support that aren’t being met. We can meet those needs.”

Holman is one of those students. He thrived in the certificate program, where he readily made friends across campus, and when he heard Nardi-Warner wanted to pursue a degree, he joined the campaign to extend Succeed’s support.

“We’re both like, ‘I’m really good at this college stuff; let’s keep going,’” Holman says. “But we needed a little bit of help. That’s why we reached out and said, ‘Hey, if we continue this, would the Succeed staff still be able to support us?’”

In the educational studies program, Holman has focused on adult and youth development. He aims to work with others with disabilities, teaching life skills in group settings. The end of the semester was busy for Holman as he completed his degree and also interned with St. Louis Arc, but he remained fixated on graduating.

“I just can’t wait, but I can’t get complacent,” he says. “I’ve got to keep focusing.”

The Succeed staff has an eye toward the future

“We’re not done growing yet, and I think that’s what’s awesome,” Lidgus says. “The next frontier here is, how do we continue to grow our vocational program? How do we solidify teaching other professionals to be part of programs like ours? How do we become that center of inclusive education at UMSL that we really need to be for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities?”

In time, those questions will no doubt be answered. For now, Regester is looking back fondly at what the program and its students have accomplished over the past decade.

“It’s a very cool thing to see inclusion in a space that I think 10 years ago people would think maybe wasn’t possible,” she says, “then to see how our students demonstrate massive successes on par with their colleagues, how they can be leaders and how they can meaningfully and fully participate in all aspects of college life.”

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