Washington State University’s ROAR program has been awarded a $2.3 million grant to continue its work helping students with intellectual or developmental disabilities have a fully integrated, on-campus experience.

WSU ROAR is the first residential (on-campus) program of its kind in the Pacific Northwest. The two-year program was established in 2017 to help students with intellectual or developmental disabilities enroll for classes, look for jobs and navigate other challenging aspects of the college experience.

The ROAR program received the 5-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities.

“The ROAR program has captured the attention, imagination, and heart of people throughout the region,” College of Education Dean Mike Trevisan said. “By providing a program to intellectually disabled students, we are doing something truly special, noteworthy, and true to the spirit of a land-grant university.”

Expanding key components

WSU ROAR is growing. The program’s first four students completed the program in the spring. Now, three years after its inception, there are 13 students enrolled.

Closeup of Evan Henninger
Evan Henninger is a WSU ROAR student who has also interned with WSU Athletics and UREC.

Program director Katie Hirschfelder said the grant will enable WSU ROAR to expand and develop some of its key components such as enrollment capacity, class advising, employment services, inclusive experiences, advocacy, and community outreach.

“ROAR’s foundation is strong and with this grant the team can really expand on the opportunities that it provides for the students,” she said. “With an expansion of the enrollment capacity, more students will be able to receive the benefits of ROAR for years to come. With that increase in students there will then be an increase in all the other facets of the program, such as staff, internships, housing needs, audit courses, and inclusive campus experiences.”

Marcus Poppen, assistant professor of special education and one of the grant’s co-PIs, said there is a professional development component. The grant will provide WSU ROAR with the resources to thoughtfully and sustainably expand the program to better meet the growing demand for postsecondary education programs for people with intellectual disabilities in the greater Pacific Northwest, particularly in the rural and underserved areas of Eastern Washington.

“During the next five years, this grant will allow WSU ROAR to better support the talents and needs of more than 60 people with intellectual disabilities,” he said.

Brian French, the college’s associate dean for research and external funding, said the Learning and Performance Research Center will play an important part in helping with WSU ROAR’s growth.

“The LPRC, with lead efforts by Kira Carbonneau, will support the evaluation components of this TPSID project,” French said.

For the students and of the students

Group photo of ROAR students
ROAR students from this past spring along with director Katie Hirschfelder (front right).

Not surprisingly, most of the attention on WSU ROAR is focused on how it positively affects the students. That’s not without merit.

“It was different to be on my own, away from my parents, and enjoy my own life” said WSU ROAR student Evan Henninger, who also enjoyed previous news coverage of the program. “I like being famous, I like going to ROAR events and Cougar games. I love the dining hall. I just like everything.”

Another WSU ROAR student, Lily Holston, said she likes picking different classes and the classes have helped with the on-campus internships.

“ROAR has helped me go to college and become more independent,” she said. “Someday I hope to live on my own.”

Sandy and Donald Tate said they were equally pleased about the impact the ROAR program has had on their daughter and are excited for the future.

“Based on the incredible amount of growth that our daughter has made in the first month of the program, this is definitely a well-deserved award,” Sandy Tate said. “We can’t wait to see what the future holds and the lives that will be affected.”

Associate professor of special education Don McMahon, who is also the program cofounder and co-PI on the grant, said the impact on students is gratifying.

“Our first cohort of students who graduated this past May have helped blaze a trail for all future students and it’s a joy to see how much growth and independence they demonstrate as they progress through the program,” McMahon said.

Poppen said comprehensive transition programs not only help students in the interim but have a large – and long-term – economic impact.

“Research continues to show that people with intellectual disabilities who participate in a postsecondary education program are more likely to be employed in competitive integrated settings, earn higher wages, work more hours, and live on their own,” Poppen said. “Watching our students rise to the same academic and independent living challenges as many of their peers without disabilities, has given me hope and inspiration for our future.”

While attention is usually on how WSU ROAR benefits the students, Trevisan said there is a little more to it than that.

“It’s not just what we as a college do for these students and families, it’s also about what these students do for us as we continue work to re-make the university that embraces diversity and inclusion,” Trevisan said. “The TIPSID grant is a strong testament to these ideas.”

McMahon said it’s been especially helpful for the undergraduate peers working with the WSU ROAR students.

“We see them gain valuable experience mentoring, tutoring, and learning in an inclusive settings with peers who have disabilities,” McMahon said. “We also see the impacts in the broader university community and the Pullman community.”