REACH sees 27 graduates

BY LILY ABROMEIT | MAY 09, 2014 5:00 AM

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Joining the REACH program at the University of Iowa two years ago changed Emma Perkins’ life.

“I came to REACH to get a little more social and to be a little more independent,” she said. “Since I’ve been at REACH, I’ve learned to open up to people.”

Perkins is a second-year student in the program, and she will join 26 of her classmates today to cross the stage in caps and gowns, recognizing their accomplishments and growth. There are a total of 48 students in the program.

REACH, the UI Realizing Educational and Career Hopes program, gives students with intellectual and cognitive disabilities a chance attend the UI.

“One of the things we want for these students is for it to be as typical an experience as possible,” said Pam Ries, the director of the program. “The fact that these individuals with disabilities can complete a degree program at a major university is what makes it special.”

Perkins has a non-verbal learning disorder and used to be shy, often having trouble talking to people.

Now, after immersing herself into the program, she feels she is ready to take the next step.

“I am excited … to start a whole new chapter in my life,” she said. “It’s a little scary and a little exciting. Since I’ve been so comfortable around here, it’s scary to do new things, but since I have been here, I’ve been learning to adapt to new challenges.”

In the fall, Perkins plans to attend Northeast Iowa Community College to study early childhood education.

Kate Stroik, a transitional specialist with REACH, said the influence of the program often follows students after they leave the UI.

“We try to maintain [the connection] after they leave,” she said. “We help them stay connected socially … [and] we always want to be a resource for them.”

Ries said she expects the ceremony to be an emotional one, just as every year.

“I always cry,” she said. “It’s just very emotional for the families. For many of them, it’s an unexpected program.”

Of the 27 students graduating, seven of them have completed the program after three years.

The third-year option was introduced in the fall of 2011; it involves students continuing in the program for an additional year while living in apartment-style housing.

The REACH program works closely with other groups on campus, such as music-therapy students, the softball and swimming teams, and student volunteers.

As the program continues to grow, so does the graduation ceremony, Reis said.

“We find at graduation time, a lot of these people come back and want to be involved,” Reis said. “Basically, anybody whose lives have been touched by these students want to come and be a part of it.”

Stroik said this loyalty to the program extends for years beyond graduation for many students.

“People want to come,” she said. “They never want to leave the REACH family."

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