Like any other 19-year-old navigating college life, Reina Koussa has places to go and things to do.
She arrives at the University of Arizona ready to rush from class to class, play her part in a student-run club, and maybe squeeze in a bite of lunch with her friends.
But unlike most college students, Koussa has an intellectual disability. And that means that for her, college was until recently out of reach.
Now a pilot program called Project FOCUS is changing that.
Project FOCUS is a partnership between the Tucson Unified School District and the UA College of Education, funded by a U.S. Department of Education grant of $2.5 million over five years.
Its goal is to ease the transition between high school and college for students with intellectual disabilities, which can include autism, Down syndrome and a number of other conditions.
College can offer these students many of the same advantages other students enjoy, says program coordinator Phyllis Brodsky.
“Our goals have to do with self-determination and employability, which we think is just in line with any other student who’s attending college,” Brodsky says. “We feel that, as with any other student, it gives them some advantages.”
Project FOCUS students like Reina Koussa enroll in regular classes, participate in university events and even get volunteer and internship experience in the course of the 2-year certificate program.
But the project is about more than time management skills and academics, Brodsky says. Like other college students, Project FOCUS participants have a chance to experience a world beyond what they’ve known, and to learn to live independently and make choices.
Whether it’s choosing breakfast or choosing where to live, “our students haven’t had enough experience or haven’t been given a voice in order to make those decisions,” Brodsky says.
Project FOCUS staff help students and their families navigate this new and often daunting independence. Campus life instructor Alison Burnette, for example, connects students to university events and teaches them the social skills they’ll need to succeed in a university environment.
She says she’s been surprised by the campus community’s support for Project FOCUS students—and by the remarkable changes she has seen in the students themselves.
It’s powerful to see “when they’re given that opportunity, how much they grow,” Burnette says. “It’s a really beautiful experience to see when you do hold high expectations, they meet them and they exceed them.”
The other piece that makes Project FOCUS work is a system of peer mentors.
Twenty-one peer mentors—all of them fellow college students—spend 20 to 25 hours a week supporting Project FOCUS students. That can mean everything from eating lunch or attending pep rallies together to providing instructional support for classes or talking through problems. But the goal is to preserve a sense of independence, says peer mentor Melissa Tvedt.
“It’s walking with them in every single step of their day, working with the decisions they want to make, and promoting them to make those decisions and to be independent in that way,” she says.
For Reina Koussa, the benefits of her almost two years with Project FOCUS are already very clear.
“It was stressful at first, but I got over it,” she says. “I feel more freedom than ever before.”
Although Project FOCUS is working to make itself sustainable, its future is still uncertain. Not everyone has been as supportive of Project FOCUS students as their classmates and peer mentors are, says Brodsky.
“I think we are still fighting a number of preconceived ideas that people have about people with intellectual disabilities,” she says. “People have already decided who can and can’t attend college based on the structure already in place. And we are way outside people’s typical concept of what that looks like.”
But Project FOCUS hopes to continue its fight, Brodsky says, so that more students like Koussa will find the freedom and opportunity they never thought they could know.
Project FOCUS Director Stephanie MacFarland and Carolyn King, a parent who has seen the program's impact on her daughter, joined AZ Illustrated Science host Jane Poynter to discuss the impact. Watch here: