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College Autism Program Spotlight: Ravens Scholars, U of Idaho

Welcome to the second installment of our series of interviews with professors or program directors who are actively welcoming autistic students into their STEM programs or lead autism-specific initiatives at the college level. Today I talked to Leslie Gwartney, coordinator of the Raven Scholars Program at University of Idaho. The Raven Scholars Program is exclusively for students with autism to foster personal, social, and academic growth using a multifaceted approach involving 1:1 coaching, life skills classes, and more.

Hey there, Leslie! It’s great to be talking to you today. Can you share some details about the Raven Scholars Program?

Thank you for your interest in the Raven Scholars program! Currently the program operates under a gift fund, supported by donations, and there is no fee for participation. It is open to individuals on the autism spectrum (or with related challenges) enrolled at the University of Idaho on a first-come, first-served basis. I strongly encourage individuals to fill out an application early as we had a waitlist for Fall 2019. I am more than happy to give folks a tour of the program and to learn more about each student and his or her needs, if interested.

The Raven Scholars program develops an individualized, wrap-around, supported transition for students on the spectrum. This looks different for each student, but one of the most important supports offered by the program is weekly or daily planning meetings, depending on the needs of the individual.  In these meetings we might look at each class syllabus and discuss current projects, assignments, upcoming quizzes and tests, fill out planners, check email, etc. We also discuss social needs, housing, coping skills, social skills, self-care (taking meds, filling prescriptions, hygiene, etc.,) self-advocacy, disability accommodations, etc.  Additionally, Raven Scholars are invited to participate in courses instructed by the Program Coordinator: INTR-101 Social Skills in the fall, and Life Skills in the spring. Courses are encouraged, but not required, and are also open to non-Raven Scholars students. Lastly, we provide one-on-one coaching when that is a better fit.

 

How do you promote self-advocacy among your students? Are students educated on topics such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

The Raven Scholars Program offers peer-mentor interns, students who earn credit through Psychology-498. To qualify as a peer-mentor intern, students must be juniors or seniors with a 3.0+ GPA going into psychology, education, health, or related fields. Peer-mentors are available to help with study skills, organization, time management, creating outlines, and so forth. In addition, they can help in developing social skills through board games, puzzles, and conversations.  Peer-mentors can either be assigned specific students throughout the week or are available to help anyone who drops in during their hours. We also do monthly social events with the Raven Scholars and peer-mentors throughout the year, such as the Welcome Back Pizza Party, Halloween Party, and so on. Additionally, Raven Scholars are presented opportunities for service learning and various workshops throughout the year.  Finally, the program can advocate on behalf of the students and coordinate services across campus, as needed.

Raven Scholar students who receive accommodations (not all do) are supported by the Center for Disability Access and Resources (CDAR). I occasionally advocate for specific accommodations with both CDAR and individual instructors as appropriate. Students who receive accommodations are informed of their rights under ADA Section 504.

 

What other programs are available and advantageous for autistic students at University of Idaho?

Other supports that University of Idaho students on the autism spectrum may want to explore:

Please see our web page for more information: https://www.uidaho.edu/ravenscholars.

 

I’m sure we have professors and administrators at smaller schools who are interested in proposing a similar idea or already have a program, but perhaps need some help getting the information to incoming students. How long has your program existed? What strategies did/does the school use to popularize this now-flourishing project?

The Raven Scholars Program was started as a pilot project from seed money donated by Judi Beck and Tom Alberg of the Raven Trust Fund (hence the name.) They generously funded the first five years of the project, which started in 2011. During those years, the program manager developed relations with our Advancement Department, which continues to work with individual donors in addition to foundations and corporations to procure financial support. The program has maintained donations as its sole source of funding (not including overhead costs such as space, utilities and access to university facilities, which are mostly covered by the University.) However, we continue to search for alternative funding such as grants. The program has been submitted by the University Budget and Finance Committee to Idaho legislature twice, but was denied funding. The university does recognize the need for the program, and the program is safe should donations fall short of fully funding the program.

The Raven Scholars program doesn’t do a great deal of outreach, as this type of support is in high demand and our space is limited to a maximum of 30 students. We do reach out to Idaho schools to be sure they are aware of the program. Yet, the program draws attention on a national level and many students come to the University of Idaho because these supports exist.

Other such programs exist in the private sector, and at some other universities, but often there is additional cost (which can be quite expensive.) I would say that funding is the biggest barrier in getting a program like this off the ground.

 

I can’t believe it only has room for 30 students. Is there a possibility of expansion should the legislature approve it?

The space allotted to us (a large room with a gorgeous view in the heart of campus) restricts the amount of students we can realistically serve. I couldn’t say if expansion would be viable with permanent funding approval by legislature. We requested funding for operations as they stand with some additional staff to help support students, but our campus space would likely remain the same.

 

Of course, a goal here is long-term independence and gainful living. Are you seeing increased interest in your students coming from employers as a result of this program?

Yes, we have seen increased interest from employers to recruit individuals in the Raven Scholars program. For example, we had a representative from HP Software reach out last spring asking for participants to apply for an internship, for which one of our students was accepted. Other companies also have programs specifically targeting hires of individuals with autism. I believe that there is an incredible diversity of potential that individuals on the autism spectrum have and that it is not limited to hard science and tech skills. I am hoping for more employers to embrace hires of individuals on the spectrum, as they have skill sets that would be beneficial to a variety of industries.

 

That’s excellent to hear! I agree autistic people offer a diverse set of skills. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. Who would you recommend we talk to for the next interview in our chain of college programs designed to help autistic students succeed?

If you have not already, you should talk to Jennifer Schoffer Clossen from MOSSAIC at University of Montana.

 

Final words

How incredible to hear the work being done at the Raven Scholars Program in Idaho. I think it is important to emphasize the funding and support needed to keep programs like this running. I encourage professors, families, and students to advocate for more programs and demonstrate the needs and benefits of college autism supports.

I want to thank Leslie Gwartney again for having this insightful chat with me. I cannot wait to meet with Professor Jennifer Closson, Director of Clinical Education for the School of Speech, Language, Hearing and Occupational Sciences and developer of the MOSSAIC program at University of Montana. It’s exciting to share info about these programs that support students with autism. Stay tuned!

Questions or comments? Join the conversation!

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Elinore Alms

Elinore Alms is a Registered Behavior Technician in Fresno, California. She works part time as an in-home positive behavior supports provider and is a biology major at Fresno City College. In her spare time, she watches anime and cares for her many pets.

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