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DANIEL NIKOLAI PAULSEN PETERS A UI student overcomes learning challenges to pursue education in innovative program.

Daniel Nikolai Paulsen Peters has a passion for cars, even though he doesn’t drive. He’s a car connoisseur, and from several blocks away can rattle off amazing facts about a vehicle from just glimpsing a headlight—including the make, model, and even the specs of the engine.
 
One of his favorites cars is the Duesenberg, which came out during the Great Depression.
 
“The Duesenberg SJ can do 104 miles per hour in second gear,” Daniel quips, “and tops out at 140 in fourth gear.”
 
In many ways, Peters is indistinguishable from his UI peers—he enjoys hanging out with friends, learning new things, and has a work ethic that’s as strong as his sense of humor.
 
Peters is also an accomplished musician, a dedicated church volunteer, performing a church service mission, and a four-year employee of Hy-Vee, where he bags groceries and pushes carts back into the store.
 
Though Peters enjoys the job, he plans to do more down the road, including pursuing a career as a car salesman or a job that involves connecting with nature. He’s also interested in architecture and would like to get married.
 
A new UI College of Education program, known as REACH or Realizing Educational and Career Hopes, is helping Peters accomplish many of his dreams.
 
The two-year, comprehensive, campus-based certificate program, one of the first of its kind at a major public university, educates students with multiple learning and cognitive disabilities to reach their full potential. Peters is one of the first 18 students to participate.
 
Peters has “a unique cluster of learning challenges,” his dad, John Peters, says. The nonverbal cues that mean so much in everyday interaction are sometimes mysterious to him. “He used to look to us for interpretation of, ‘Is this person sounding angry?’ or, ‘Is this person sounding happy?’” says his mom, Marsha Paulsen Peters, adding that her son often takes things very literally.
 
K-12 math classes, in particular, were very challenging for Peters. However, he excelled in areas such as choir and orchestra. In fact, he was concert master violin in seventh grade, though he switched to contrabass in eighth grade. He’s also taught himself how to play the piano and sings low bass.
 
He was born 10 weeks prematurely, and faced some immediate medical challenges. He spent almost four months in intensive care due to breathing difficulties, and had the distinction of riding a Learjet air ambulance from California to University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics when the family moved to Iowa in 1986.
 
“I’ve had my dose of medically challenging things,” Peters says. “But they’re tamed, and I’m a survivor.”
 
In fact, Peters was named after the prophet from the Bible because he had to calm lions in the den.
 
“I had my fair share of medical lions to ward off,” Peters says, “and so I needed a tough name.”
 
His mom said that they first learned about the REACH program from an e-mail sent out by The University of Iowa.
 
Peters graduated from Iowa City High School in 2005 and attended Kirkwood Community College for a few classes, but was excited to attend Iowa.
 
“I was kind of looking for something new,” Peters says.
 
REACH was the right fit for Peters. However, that doesn’t mean it’s been all smooth sailing.
 
Peters admits there are personalities he’s still learning to get along that with that he didn’t initially “jive with.”
 
“I had to learn how to get along,” Peters says. “I’ve kind of learned from a bunch of people that no matter what line of work you’re in, you still get the occasional knucklehead.”
 
The REACH program consists of core classes that are designed to help students transition to independent living and productive careers.
 
“You put your fingers in a lot of pies, and figure out what you like and what you don’t like and what you want to do with your life,” Peters says.
 
As part of Peters’ curriculum through REACH, he’s taken a personal finance course as well as courses in academic success, interpersonal communication, life skills, career development, current events, computer technology, and human sexuality.
 
The REACH students live in Stanley Residence Hall on campus, which has further helped Peters gain independence and life skills while fully integrating him into the university experience.
 
Choosing healthy food at the Burge Residence Hall Market Place and getting enough exercise have also been challenges for Peters. “I’ve kind of porked up from what I used to be,” Peters jokes. Still, he usually walks everywhere and lifts weights to keep in shape.
 
What does Peters believe he’s gained from the REACH Program?
 
“One key thing is anger management, courtesy of me being easily annoyed­—I’m just kind of frictional and just learning how to hold my lips shut and not say something I really want to say,” Peters says.
 
His parents agree he’s thriving in this environment.
 
 “We think the REACH program has been manna from heaven,” his mom says. “The timing was perfect, and it was just what Daniel needed right at this point in his life. We’ve seen him gain more clues about social situations because he is such a social animal and so he’s learning what the clues mean.”
 
For more information on the REACH program, visit http://www.education.uiowa.edu/reach/.

Story by Lois J. Gray; photo by Tom Jorgensen.

April 13, 2009