Viewing a film in a college lecture hall inspired this professor to pursue a lifelong career in helping those with different cognitive and learning disabilities and behavioral disorders succeed in all facets of their lives.
Jo Hendrickson and her husband, a retired finance professor, were on cruise control headed southeast on Interstate 40, a trailer securely hitched behind their Ford Conversion van. Their destination was an oceanfront home in Florida, where they could watch dolphins feed, ospreys soar, green sea turtles hatch, and the lights of nighttime shrimpers bob.
“My plan was simple: follow the sun,” says Hendrickson, who was in her final year of phased retirement after a lengthy and impressive career as a special education professor in the University of Iowa College of Education. “The South was beckoning, my house was sold, and a new chapter of my life was about to be written.”
Then came the cell phone call.
Hendrickson was recruited on the road, literally, to come back and lead a new two-year UI certificate program for students with cognitive and learning disabilities, the first of its kind at a Big Ten Research I institution. Realizing Education and Career Hopes, or REACH, was in need of a new director, and many thought she’d be the perfect match.
Did she hesitate? “Not for a moment,” Hendrickson says. “Though I didn’t realize it at the time, in some ways, I’d been preparing my entire professional life for this role.”
Over the span of four decades, Hendrickson has worked with families, community organizations, local and state education agencies, and private sector education firms. She’s been a research scientist and a diagnostician, and has extensive experience with teacher education and doctoral training. She came to the University in 1989 as a special education professor.
All of these experiences, she says, benefit her in her day-to-day work as REACH director.
“Each day is a web of activities that involves a coordinated, dynamic response by staff to enhance student learning,” Hendrickson says. “There are no dull moments and many inspirational ones.”
The program offers course work, campus life, career preparation, and internship opportunities designed to empower students and prepare them for the next chapter of their lives. REACH students live in a residence hall and are fully integrated into the campus community.
“The active collaboration of University faculty and staff, community agencies and businesses, schools, and other organizations is required,” Hendrickson says. “The response of all has been fantastic.”
The seeds for Hendrickson’s civic-mindedness were planted as a child growing up in Eagle River, Wis., a small but “very civic-oriented, child-centered community.”
Though idyllic in many ways—“Everybody knew everybody, and people looked after one another,” Hendrickson says—there were no local career options for young women in the 1960s. So, supported with federal grants, Hendrickson headed off to the University of Wisconsin to study psychology.
An epiphany came to her while sitting in an introductory psychology lecture with 500 students, where her professor showed a film that he hoped would capture their attention.
“For 45 mesmerizing moments, we watched a young blond-haired boy with autism engage in all types of behaviors that seemed aimed at driving everyone away,” Hendrickson says. “But the final minutes of the film were incredible. We watched as various therapists interacted in simple, repetitive ways—early renditions of behavioral techniques—to improve his communication and teach basic concepts.”
Hendrickson says this youngster, who by all measures seemed “unteachable,” was later sitting quietly, attentive and speaking intelligibly.
“I remember wondering if he went to school, ever participated in Easter egg hunts or ice skated—could he possibly have friends?” Hendrickson says. “And, the key question, ‘What if he were my brother?’”
It was a turning point in her life. She knew that she wanted to teach, and special education was her calling.
Hendrickson went on to get a master’s degree in learning disabilities and behavioral disorders, and, later, a doctorate at Vanderbilt University in special education.
Since coming on board as the REACH director in fall of 2008, Hendrickson has witnessed profound transformations in the students whom she and her staff work with—much like what she first saw in the young boy in the film some 40 years earlier.
The hours are often long, and her current role requires intense energy, doing everything from working with staff and faculty to enrich the curriculum to communicating with parents and the students themselves, as well as fund-raising, recruiting, and helping evaluate students for the program.
“I have always enjoyed pushing my comfort zone with new challenges and fresh experiences,” Hendrickson says. “And I’m so proud of all of these students for what they’ve accomplished.”
Hendrickson keeps a decorative neon flamingo in her REACH office window as a reminder of a time to come. For now, she looks forward to watching the first cohort of 16 REACH students receive their certificates in May.
“Everyone has a right to an education, and educational opportunities should be lifelong,” Hendrickson says. “Individuals with disabilities should be taught using empirical, evidence-based practices—the best that science has to offer. This is what we strive to achieve at REACH.”
story by Lois J. Gray; photo by Tom Jorgensen
UI REACH students receive certificates at first convocation May 7