UP and Away: Program offers genuine college experience


UP Program participant Will Darling discusses with teammates during a game of kickball in Reid Gym.

For Hickory native Ali Hale, being named Western Carolina University’s Homecoming Queen in the October game against The Citadel was just another part of her normal college experience.

Hale is a member of the University Participant (UP) Program – a two-year, residential living and learning experience that strives to offer those with intellectual disabilities just that – a normal college experience.

The program began in 2007, a product of Dr. David Westling and Kelly Kelley’s attempts to make WCU more inclusive. Kelley wanted to “set an example” for North Carolina’s 16 other public universities through increasing the opportunities offered to those with special needs.

“For the most part, these students have a better outlook than others. They get up in the mornings not because they have to, but because they want to show the world that they can,” Kelley said. “It is incredible to see things from their perspective and see what they can do, even when they have been told that they can’t.”

There are currently eight students in the UP Program, including Hale. These individuals live in the residence halls, attend classes, take part in extracurriculars and juggle an internship. While resources are offered in the form of volunteer mentors, the amount of assistance needed is determined by the UP student.

“We start out really strong with support to get them oriented, and then we fade that out so they do not need us forever,” Kelley said. “Oftentimes, they will tell us that they feel comfortable with a task and want to do it alone. We have monthly meetings where we look at the support system in place, in order to see what needs to be changed or modified.”

For Hale, walking to classes and her job in the daycare center of Cullowhee United Methodist Church offers a sense of independence. Living on campus also helps.

“I love living here at Western. I have my own individual room and my dorm is very close to all of the buildings,” Hale said. “I don’t really experience any challenges. Everyone is nice, so I have met a lot of friends.”

Ali Hale

After being named WCU’s 2014 Homecoming Queen last October, Hale poses for photos with her family. Courtesy of Pam Hale

As a self titled “busy body,” Hale can be found at basketball games clad in purple, folding her laundry on Sunday afternoons and finishing homework for her HEAL 250 “First Aid and Safety Education” course. After attending Catawba Valley Community College’s Compensatory Education Program, Hale applied to WCU in hopes of continuing her education, so she can do what she loves most – work with children.

“My heart is telling me that I want to be a kindergarten teacher at an elementary school. It is just something that I know,” she said.

Linking students to employment opportunities is yet another goal of personnel. Impressively, half of the spring semester graduates have already secured well-paying jobs in the field of their choice.
Michael Beasley, the first student to go through the program in 2007, went on to establish his own small business in which he produces and sells dog treats.

“The UP Program gave me more of an advantage and more knowledge,” Beasley said. “To this day, it helps me interact with my customers so that I can have a business.”

Trace Shuler, WCU’s 2014 Homecoming King and current UP student, has even been linked to a local retirement home. Shuler hopes the internship, alongside health occupation courses, will give him the experience needed to become a nurse.

“One graduate is working 30 to 40 hours in a daycare setting. He is looking for a condo right now in a community where he could walk to work,” Kelley said. “Another alumni is also working in a daycare. It is almost addictive to take things from fantasy to reality for them.”

Until recently, an inclusive graduation ceremony alongside other WCU graduates was a fantasy for UP Program students. It was not until May of 2013 when Anna Joyner, Lexie Kurrimbukus and David Maennle walked across the Ramsey Center stage to receive their diplomas, proudly flaunting purple and gold tassels. It is changes like this, says Kelley, that make her feel “blessed to be at Western Carolina University.”

“The voice that comes through the student body is very powerful,” Kelley said. “Everyone has come together and said, ‘This is the right thing to do. This is what we need to be doing to embrace diversity in our college and also show how we can make a difference for those around us.’ The university as a whole has been amazing to work with.”

As for WCU’s 2014 Homecoming Queen, the “Whee” is the perfect place to both prove her purple and prove that everyone can have the genuine college experience.

“I never dreamed of the traditional college experience for Ali,” Hale’s mother Pam said. “Though she is only a quarter of the way through the program, she is well on her way to independent living. Since coming to Western, Ali’s expectations for herself have taken on more priority and more meaning.”