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First graduates of NSU RiverHawks Scholar Program leave lasting impact on campus, state

Source: Northeastern State University
First graduates of NSU RiverHawks Scholar Program leave lasting impact on campus, state

TAHLEQUAH — For Julie Lackey students with intellectual and developmental disabilities are first and foremost students, but she noticed post-secondary opportunities for this group were severely limited.

So, the founder and executive director of LeadLearnLive worked together with other advocates on the nonprofit board and Northeastern State University to change that with the establishment of the RiverHawks Scholar Program in 2018.

The program became Oklahoma’s first post-secondary transition certificate program for students with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities and recently celebrated a major milestone—graduating its first class.

The program's first graduates are Alaine Lambert of Muskogee, Sarah Parrack and Michael Copeland of Tulsa. The three seniors donned their cap and gowns and walked across the stage on May 7 alongside other graduating NSU students.

“I am so proud of the program, our RiverHawks Scholar Program students and the faculty and staff who support them,” NSU Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Debbie Landry said. “The program continues to grow and the students continue to be involved, caring and enthusiastic.”

Students enrolled in the RiverHawks Scholar Program are fully integrated into campus life. Director Justin Chase said students live on campus, participate fully in student activities and attend classes and events with non-disabled peers. He added this provides a rewarding experience not only for students enrolled in the program but has also seen their presence having a positive impact on the entire campus.

“I think it’s helped our campus be more open and accepting,” Chase said. “As an NSU graduate I’m proud of how our university has embraced the RiverHawks Scholar Program students.”

When Arkansas native and college graduate Grace Risenhoover came to NSU she was looking for a way to work with students with disabilities either on-campus or in the community.

Risenhoover said during the first week of school she received an email to apply for the RiverHawks Scholar Program as a mentor and applied immediately. She said being an RSP mentor has been one of the most fulfilling things she has done in college.

“This program is an amazing experience for anyone wanting to join,” Risenhoover said. “Not only is it a great way to become involved on campus, but you make amazing friendships along the way.”

Advocating for all students

As a parent of a student with intellectual disabilities, Lackey said she personally understood the need for in-state options to serve students like her son.

Lackey said when the nonprofit was seeking university partners the NSU administration was very supportive of adding the program.

She recalled NSU President Dr. Steve Turner reaching out to the past president of the College of Charleston to discuss inclusive post-secondary education for students with intellectual disabilities programs as they worked to bring a similar program to Oklahoma.

“It has been really beautiful to watch this program grow over the past four years and it was truly a special moment seeing our first graduates don their regalia,” Turner said. “I am proud our institution stepped up to the plate to be that example of creating an inclusive and supportive community.”

Lackey said the RiverHawks Scholar Program was modeled after some of the most successful programs in the country and while other Oklahoma universities expressed interest in the past they encountered barriers to doing so.

“We believe that NSU stepping out to begin the first comprehensive program provided extra incentive to other universities to begin their own program,” Lackey said, adding as of this fall Oklahoma will now have three programs.

Landry said the program reflects NSU’s core values and the university was proud to lead the way in Oklahoma to having such programs available.

Since accepting its first cohort of students during the 2018-19 academic year, Chase said the program has grown to better serve the students enrolled from expanding internship opportunities in the local community to securing financial aid for students.

Greenwood Elementary Teacher Joette Berry said representatives with the RSP program approached her about having Lambert and others intern at the school. Lambert assisted students in reading and math as an intern in Berry’s K – 2nd grade class. Other duties included organizing the classroom and making crafts with students.

“I believe the RSP program is a wonderful addition to NSU and a wonderful program for these individuals,” Berry said. “I was glad to be a part of it.”

Support for the program expanded in 2020 as NSU partnered with Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services to provide needed financial assistance for students enrolling in the program.

The Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services allows eligible students up to $3,000 per semester for tuition, room and board, as well as paid internships. Students must be DRS clients with an individual plan for employment, ages 18-24 years old and enrolled in the NSU RiverHawks Scholar Program.

In 2021 the U.S. Department of Education approved the NSU program to receive a Comprehensive Transition Program designation. This allows current and future students to be eligible to complete the FAFSA Free Application for Federal Student Aid for funding to help cover college expenses and have access to other financial aid options such as a Pell Grant or Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity grants, as well as federal work study.

Lackey said she and her son were attracted to the campus’ size and welcoming atmosphere when she enrolled him into the program at NSU. She added his time with the program is how he was able to find his area of interest, which is only available at a small number of universities.

“Our hope for RSP is that more and more academic departments form partnerships with the program and as they do, we know from experience across the nation that the program will enrich the campus as a whole,” Lackey said.

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