In this episode of campus conversations, President Noland has a conversation with Dr. Dawn Rowe and Dr. Melody Blevins about Access ETSU, a nationally respected program that provides critical support to young adults with intellectual disabilities.

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  • Campus Conversations Video Transcript 

    President Noland: Hello. I'm Brian Noland. I have the honor to serve as the president of East Tennessee State University, and it is my pleasure to welcome you to episode six of “Campus Conversations.” And the conversations today are conversations that really strike to the core of the institutional mission. You know, as we reflect upon the role of the university, it's to improve the quality of life for the people of the region, and the work that you all do really touches lives of people across the region in dynamic ways. So thank you for being a part of this edition and thanks for probing a little bit on a program that may not be well known but is probably among the most impactful programs we have at the institution and that's Access ETSU. So Dr. Rowe, talk to me a little bit about the program, the initiatives and some of the services that you all provide to students here at the institution as we're preparing them for life beyond college in some pretty unique and diverse ways. 

    Dr. Rowe: Sure. Thank you. So Access ETSU is a service to students with intellectual disabilities on our campus. So students with intellectual disabilities who really, in our community, who want to pursue further education after they've graduated high school, enroll at ETSU as non-degree-seeking students, and then we, our staff and peer mentors across the university provide one-on-one support to students to ensure that they can access the content and the curriculum content, but also access everything else ETSU has to offer. So we're really excited to be able to engage in a real person-centered process where we're looking at the assets of the students and what their strengths are and what their interests are, and really figuring out how the services and supports offered at the university can wrap around to support them to be successful and to meet their career goals. Most all students enrolling at ETSU are enrolling with the purpose or with the intent of gaining knowledge and skills to be in careers of choice, which historically, they have been limited in their opportunities to do that. And so ETSU, as an institution, has been really welcoming and opening their doors to a population of students who have typically not had access to college. 

    President Noland: How many students are enrolled in the program this fall in 2023? 

    Dr. Blevins: We currently have 20 students. We have the capacity to serve right now about 20 to 25. And as we continue to grow, we hope to increase that number as well. 

    Dr. Noland: So those 20 students, are they primarily from Northeast Tennessee, or… 

    Dr. Blevins: We've had students apply from other states as well. Most of the students that we're currently serving are in our region as far as the opposite side of Green County, close to the North Carolina border, all the way up to Hawkins County, Bristol. So it's not just right here in Washington County and Johnson City. It's definitely in that first region, Northeast Tennessee, but we have had lots of interest across the state and other states as well. 

    Dr. Noland: So one of the things that I've really enjoyed about the initiative is the chance to watch young students come to the university and blossom. Donna and I've had the honor to be in this capacity for more than a decade. And I'm familiar with a young student who I had the opportunity to watch grow up in the church that we attend. And then they came to ETSU and really just blossomed. And I've got a number of stories that I hope we can probe into on ways in which students in your program have not only served as a beacon of hope and inspiration for the campus, but probably one of my favorite memories of all time as President of this institution involves one of your students. So talk to us some about the experiences that your students have here at ETSU and the growth and transformation that occurs during their time at the university. 

    Dr. Rowe: So I'll start and then I'll pass it to you. I think, you know, many of the students that we are serving are coming from high schools where they have been served in primarily self-contained classrooms, meaning separate segregated settings with individuals with pretty significant disabilities for the majority of their school career. And so coming to campus and being a fully inclusive campus is kind of a … it's a different experience and it does require some additional support for students to really be successful. But what we are learning is as students are coming into this setting and being exposed to all these different opportunities that they've never had before, they're improving skills that we did not think that they would improve or historically their schools have said they're not ever going to gain these skills. I mean, simple things as using a cell phone. I mean, for 20 plus years, you know, a family has said, my student is not ever going to be able to use a cell phone. But within the first six weeks here on campus, they have learned how to accurately use a cell phone, not just to call and communicate, but to navigate our campus. And so they're using technology tools like that. They're gaining social skills, communication skills, all skills that we know our workforce is requiring. You know, our workforce all the research around the workforce says you need these certain employability skills, communication, teamwork. We have some students who are really pursuing entrepreneurial jobs. Right. So they're performing artists or they're into photography. So they're doing freelance work, which is kind of unheard of in this kind of world of work. And I've been doing work in employment for individuals with intellectual disabilities for a long time. But we have others who are excelling in like D.J. and radios and so and they've been published and they're doing research. We have students doing research presentations at national conferences. And so to me, I think what's even more exciting than just being able to come is the skills that they're learning in such a short amount of time because of exposure. 

    President Noland: So we have 20 students now. The program's been in existence long enough that we have graduates. You had the opportunity to share some of those stories of graduates at our Board of Trustees meeting earlier this fall and was really captured by a student who completed the program and is now pursuing their career of choice in Kingsport. So how many students have graduated from the program and what do you see as elements of continued growth and development? You can talk a little bit about the enrollment caps, but you know, where have we been and where do you see us five years from now? 

    Dr. Blevins: So currently we have five graduates. We have an anticipated eight more this year. Out of that group, we also have two students who either have returned or plan to return to ETSU as degree-seeking students. So one thing that's really powerful about our service and what we provide is we are the first college university experience for a lot of students and for some of these students, many of our students are first-generation students. 

    President Noland: So one of the things that I've enjoyed watching, both from a distance and up close, is how this program is more than just something that serves an individual student. There's a network of individuals that are part of the initiative. So if I'm a student majoring in education, or if I'm a student majoring in special education or counseling, they have a chance to interact and guide and mentor. So give us a little bit of a glimpse of how this has impacted other students at the institution above and beyond just the direct participants. 

    Dr. Blevins: Yes. So our students are supported by peer mentors, which we call BucMates. And BucMates can come from any program. They can be undergraduate students, they can be graduate students. It started with a lot of education majors, but now we've really expanded because the need has expanded. One student can require anywhere from two to 10 BucMates to provide all the supports; they need - up to 10 – up to 10 on average. So they support them in class by going to class with them and modeling how to participate in class. They support them by studying with them outside of class and helping them complete their assignments. They serve as job coaches, so they go to work with them. They do fun things with them. They go to all the fun events that Buctainment puts on and all the concerts and things like that that we have on campus. So there's a lot of opportunities for peer mentors to serve in multiple roles. 

    President Noland: As you look at things that you've done throughout your respective careers, I'm sure that this is one that 30 years from now you're going to look back and say, this may have been the highlight of my career. Can you share with us a story or two, even though the history’s recent, that just when you close your eyes and think, it always makes you smile? 

    Dr. Rowe: Have a couple of those there. 

    Dr. Noland: I've got a couple as well, but I want to hear yours first. 

    Dr. Rowe: You know, it makes me smile every day when I just get a phone call about 8:00 in the morning, I'll get a phone call that says, “Hey, Rowe, I'm here and my peer mentor is not here, but I'm going to go to class.” I'm like, “Do you feel good about going to class by yourself?” And they’re like, “Yeah.” I'm like, “Well then, go to your class by yourself. And you got my phone number, and if you need to call me again, you can.” So it makes me smile when somebody feels empowered to be able to make that decision for themselves and then go so I have a lot of those little moments and I get calls all night and in the weekend I have set boundaries, but I'm not really good at keeping them. But that's what makes me smile, the fact that they feel empowered. And then actually when the families start to shift their mindset, because families are they have been in a position where they have been the decision-making power for years. Right. So they're making all the decisions for students. But as students are aging, they're starting to gain autonomy and decision-making skills. And those moments when the student says “Stop” to their families and says, “I got this. I made this decision myself.” I think for me, that's very empowering, and it shifts the mindsets of both the families and the community that our students are capable and that they shouldn't be seen by their disability label, but really seen by their strengths. And to me, those are those really exciting moments. 

    Dr. Blevins: I think for me most of my career was spent as an elementary school teacher, so I didn't have as much experience with this population. And it was really interesting for me to see what happens after elementary school and middle school and how we can use what we know now through the interview process that we have with our students. Because our students apply, they go through an interview process with us through what we've learned, by serving students and by serving peer mentors as well, and how we're working with our area schools to strengthen the pipeline of students that are coming up through and explaining to them that college is an option for everybody who wants it. 

    President Noland: Well, one of the things that I've enjoyed is the growth that has transpired for students. And I had the opportunity to see that growth over time. And as I look at that growth, I'm reminded of my family background. My uncle didn't have the opportunities that your students do, and so much of his life was confined to the home, defined by the care that was provided by my grandmother, and he didn't have the chance to realize his full potential to be himself and to realize his dreams. But our students do. And as I reflect back on students and stories, you know, there's one young man for me that I'll remember two elements of this young man's journey at ETSU for the rest of my life. I'll never forget being in Brooks Gym for the convocation at the start of the fall with 2,000 freshmen and in front of me. And I'm on stage, giving a speech, and all of a sudden to my left, there's this blood-curdling scream, “I don't want to be here!” And I paused and thought, “This is not going to go very well,” because it was an energetic voice that was coming from the side of the room. Once I turned and saw who it was and what it was, and your BucMates accommodating the student who had been overstimulated, I realized, okay, this will be fine. And I turned and went on with the address. I think I made a comment, “Sometimes you get so carried away by the spirit you just gotta shout.” And on we went. Now fast-forward two years later, this same individual is behind the stage at the Martin Center, getting ready to go on stage and perform a song with his idol in the wings. And I had the opportunity while he was on stage performing to share that story with this person who was his idol, and our most famous alum stood there and said, “That young man?” And I said, “Yes, that young man.” And tears are rolling down his face. So the things that you all do to inspire extend beyond our campus and I just can't say thank you enough because it's amazing to watch the growth and development that occurs in students from when they first walked through the door to when they graduate and walk across the stage. And I just wish similar things had been made available to members of my family because I can't imagine how different their life might have been. 

    Dr. Rowe: Well, I can't. I appreciate our community, our campus community, because without our campus community, I don't think it would be possible. You know, the faculty and staff on our campus have been amazing. I mean, they're not trained in special education, yet they are embracing this concept, and we talk about impact. That to me is what's really amazing. Some of the faculty and staff are, because they're serving students with intellectual disabilities, they're recognizing that they need to modify some of their instruction. But it's not just for that student, it’s for all students to ensure that the content is accessible to everybody. And I think, you know, our peer mentors that are coming from across, I mean, we have students in IT, we have students in parks and recreation, we've had students in public health that are serving students in the growth and the fact that they embrace supporting individuals and they're growing their own leadership is pretty amazing. 

    President Noland: So the support for the initiative -- give us a little bit of visibility around how the institution and how you all make this move, because in addition to running programs, you know, you're world-class researchers. You have I think, if my memory is correct, $5 million or so worth of grants that are running across your desk. So walk us through how all of the behind the scenes aspects of this fit and how does it fit into your research portfolio? Because for those who pay attention, they should be aware that you were selected as the outstanding research faculty member at the institution this year by your peers. 

    Dr. Rowe: So that's a really great question. This was a grassroots effort, so we started the program. The first student came through and there was no additional funding for that student. It was all volunteer time from a few of us faculty who are really just dedicated to doing this work. We did write a grant that again allowed us to hire staff. So we have four staff and an executive aide, which the grant is currently funding. And so when you talk about operations, a lot of the operational cost at this moment in time is funded through that grant. And so part of that grant is to develop a plan for long term sustainability. But you asked about research and that part is what's intriguing to me behind the scenes and part of the grant we are collecting a lot of data, one on peer mentors and their perceptions of what skills they are developing. So this is data that will be collected and analyzed over time and then eventually we'll make it to publication. But so we're doing that. We also are collecting data on faculty perceptions so that we can identify what the barriers to supporting individuals are. What are some of the successes? How has their behavior changed as a result of serving individuals with intellectual disabilities in their classes? And then we also I mean, ultimately, we're looking at employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities. 

    President Noland: Well, I want to thank you all for all the work that you do as we reflect upon the mission of this institution to improve the quality of life for the people of our region. You are living that mission every day of the week, particularly at eight in the morning when folks are call and say, “Hey, I'm here and I'm just going to go to class by myself.” But thank you for what you do for the institution. You clearly are an inspiration. As our board said the other day, you're one of the best kept secrets on campus. But I think that secret's out, because I know that our program is being modeled all across the state of Tennessee. So thank you all for what you do. And thank you all for joining us for episode six of “Campus Conversations.” Everyone, have a wonderful week. Godspeed and Go Bucs.  


East Tennessee State University was founded in 1911 with a singular mission: to improve the quality of life for people in the region and beyond. Through its world-class health sciences programs and interprofessional approach to health care education, ETSU is a highly respected leader in rural health research and practices. The university also boasts nationally ranked programs in the arts, technology, computing, and media studies. ETSU serves approximately 14,000 students each year and is ranked among the top 10 percent of colleges in the nation for students graduating with the least amount of debt.

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