Cara Kazor knows what she wants to do once she graduates from The University of Iowa: work as a paraeducator to help other students with cognitive disabilities succeed.
The 20-year-old from Waukee, Iowa, is one of the first 18 UI students enrolled in the College of Education’s Realizing Educational and Career Hopes (REACH) program, an inclusive two-year certificate program designed to help college-age students with cognitive and learning disabilities develop life skills and transition to successful employment and full participation in the community.
Through the REACH program, students take core classes in academic enrichment, career development, and life and social skills for independent living. One of the first programs of its kind to be offered at a Research I university, REACH students are fully integrated into university life, including living in the residence halls.
Kazor says she knows she is fortunate to be one of the first students who will benefit from the program. She is excited that she has the opportunity to gain more independence and career skills to pursue a pareducator career.
“I was inspired to pursue this career because of support that I received from my paraeducator, Kris Dykstra, at Waukee Senior High School,” Kazor says. “I just want to help those, like myself, because I’ve had so much support from my paraeducator.
“I wanted to do the same for kids because children are our future.”
Kazor had a stroke when she was 6 months old, affecting her ability to process information and think things through completely. However, through REACH, she’s taking classes on everything from financial management to human relations and sexuality as well as engaging in volunteer work and meeting other students through social activities. The courses are designed specifically for this student population, and are taught by three part-time instructors
REACH interim director Jo Hendrickson says that this program benefits not just the 12 men and six women in the program—who hail from Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Minnesota, and Nevada—but also UI College of Education students pursuing careers in different areas of education.
“We have undergraduate and graduate students from several program areas who are actively and meaningfully involved in direct service to REACH students working as tutors, mentors, activity leaders, and group facilitators,” Hendrickson says.
The program debuted in October 2007, thanks to support by private gift commitments in the amount of $1.4 million and leadership from former lieutenant governor Sally Pederson, who also chairs the REACH Advisory Board. Pederson became a partner in the effort to start REACH in Iowa after sending her own son, Ronald, who has autism, to a postsecondary program in Illinois.
REACH received a major boost this October, when the Principal Financial Group Foundation Inc. announced a pledge of $319,000 to support a career development coordinator position. This staff member, Janis Mendenhall, helps spearhead the preparation and transition of REACH students to new career opportunities with Iowa businesses, such as the Principal Financial Group, and develop partnerships with an array of employers.
Mendenhall says her position helps provide support for students to successfully transition from the REACH program to independent living and successful employment.
“Students explore careers through classroom discussion, activities, and homework, and are required to complete three internships during the two years in the program,” says Mendenhall, one of eight full-time REACH staff.
Hendrickson says she and her staff also will work with employers and businesses to examine their job positions and ways REACH students could potentially work in jobs that are modified.
Mendenhall describes this approach as “job carving,” where duties are rearranged among positions based on skills and abilities of individuals.
The program also benefits the state and economy, Hendrickson says, by ensuring a more qualified and productive workforce.
“Increasing accessibility to jobs not typically available to students with disabilities and creating a larger and more diverse workforce is good for students, good for business, and good for the state of Iowa,” Hendrickson says.
Hendrickson adds that REACH students have a wide range of competencies, skills, and talents.
“Each has the potential to succeed in a wider array of jobs than those typically considered by employers and educators,” Hendrickson says. “Working together with a fresh eye and new technologies, we should be able to modify traditional positions and design niche jobs well suited to the talents and interests of students with varied disabilities and well matched with the needs of future workplaces.”
by Lois J. Gray