After dropping off their daughter Patricia at her college dorm for the first time, Mike and Nancy Moody were so nervous they booked a room at a nearby hotel for a week, just in case their youngest child needed them quickly.
“As parents, we were very happy this opportunity came up for Patricia but this is a big, huge, campus and we were afraid of letting go,” Nancy Moody said.
But the couple, who lives an hour and a half from the University of Central Florida’s campus, where Patricia attends, saw little of their daughter that first week because was already immersed in campus life and activities.
Almost four years have passed, and Patricia, who has Down syndrome, is now completing her program at UCF. She’s one of 13 students, the first in school history, who will complete a program designed for students with intellectual disabilities this spring. On Monday, Patricia and her peers attended a ceremony at the Burnett House, the on-campus president’s residence. They’ll also be able to walk in the university-wide commencement events next month.
Students in the program, which is part of UCF Inclusive Education Services, aren’t seeking bachelor’s degrees, though they take courses designed to prepare them for their adult lives and careers and receive a credential intended specifically for them. They can also take regular UCF courses, though they don’t receive grades or college credit. The program is intended for students with IQs of about 75 for whom a traditional college experience isn’t an option, said Adam Meyer, director of Student Accessibility Services and Inclusive Education Services.
The program typically lasts five semesters and costs about $40,000 for in-state students, including meals and housing, though some scholarships are available. To date, 24 students have enrolled. Many of them live on campus and participate in clubs and activities with other UCF students.
“This is truly a UCF opportunity — something that our UCF community has come together to create for these students, and it’s really hard to put into words what this opportunity means for these students and their parents .,” Meyer said.
Several of the students completing the program this spring already have jobs lined up, Meyer said. Others will go back to their parents’ homes and decide what to do next.
The first six students enrolled in the UCF program in 2015 after former Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who has a son with Down syndrome, urged the state to provide more opportunities to students with disabilities. Although then-Gov. Rick Scott vetoed money for a statewide job training center for people with disabilities, UCF forged ahead with the pilot program, which was already in the works.
Nationally, a growing number of colleges and universities are welcoming students with intellectual disabilities. More than 200 campuses offer programs designed for them, according to Think College, part of the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Students and families raved about the UCF program after Monday’s event, eagerly listing off their clubs and activities and talking about making friends with their roommates and classmates.
Like the Moodys, some of the parents who attended the event said they were initially anxious, even hesitant, about sending their children to a large university. One mother, Kimetta Ortiz, remembered receiving frequent calls at midnight or 1 a.m. from her son, Matthew.
“I don’t know if I can do it,” he told her.
Ortiz, who lives in Hernando County, told him she believed he could. Eventually, she said, “I stopped getting those calls.”
Now, Matthew Ortiz plans to stay in Orlando and has already lined up a job working in the cafeteria at a local charter school. His friends and church are here and “he’s seen too much to come back,” said his mom, who plans to move to be closer to her son.
Classmate Patricia Moody plans to return to her parents’ home in Vero Beach as she searches for her next opportunity. She’d like to work with law enforcement, she said, doing something that involves helping people with special needs.
When she left home for UCF, Moody was 32, a little older than most of her peers. She’d been teaching sign language at schools in her hometown. She kept telling her parents she wanted to go to college.
But, her parents said, a program like the one at UCF “didn’t exist.” Most structured education for people with disabilities ends at age 26. That changed when Mike Moody received an email about a new opportunity at UCF.
Patricia Moody quickly found her way around campus, joining the sign language and College Republicans clubs and getting involved with Best Buddies, which pairs people with disabilities with typical peers.
“I was blown away,” Nancy Moody said.