ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (May 15, 2023) — Six students with intellectual disabilities became the first cohort to complete the Eileen Hoffman Hafer UMatter Program, a postsecondary education program at USF St. Petersburg that allows students who aren’t typically represented at college to experience campus life and prepare for a career.
The students spent the past two years in UMatter, receiving a certificate of completion at the end of the Spring 2023 semester. The innovative program provides young adults with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to further their education and live on campus while learning social skills and career training.
Among those completing the program is 21-year-old Luke King, who wasn’t sure if he could ever attend college. But the Sarasota native is ready to start an internship and live independently.
“I always wanted to come somewhere where I could make changes and be more confident to do other things in the world,” King said. “It’s not something that comes to you; it’s something that you have to work to get and hope that things work out.”
The program allows students to pursue their academic passions and have a true college experience by living in residence halls, attending sporting events and being part of student clubs. King joined the USF sailing team and hopes to pursue a career in business and marketing. He has an internship this summer at Ceridian in St. Petersburg.
“I’ll be living in an apartment. I’m excited but also nervous because I’ve always been on campus, had a meal plan and not had to think about food or how much it’s going to cost me,” King said.
With support from professional staff and mentors from USF’s College of Education, participants take topical courses that teach social skills and independent living. Students learn how to do laundry, grocery shop, budget and make healthy lifestyle choices. In addition, students take actual college courses that align with their career path.
“There is a need for inclusive postsecondary education programs on college campuses,” said Jayme Joslyn, UMatter director. “The passion they have for learning, for succeeding and for being a contributing citizen in their community has been astounding.”
To qualify for the program, students must be 18, have a high school diploma and have a documented intellectual disability. The term is used when there are limits to a person’s ability to learn at an expected level and function in daily life compared to peers. People with Down syndrome and some with autism spectrum disorder can fit into this classification.
“I want people to know that disabled people are humans too,” said Logan Lavery, a UMatter student who also graduated from the program in May. “I want to teach because I really want to make a difference in kids’ lives.”
The UMatter program was launched in 2020 through a $900,000 grant awarded by the Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities. In 2021, USF received a $1.2 million gift from Andrew and Eileen Hafer to help fund its operations and initiatives.
In addition to the six graduates, five students are entering their second year, and another cohort of ten is starting in August.
View this story and video on the USF St. Petersburg website.
About the University of South Florida
The University of South Florida, a high-impact global research university dedicated to student success, generates an annual economic impact of more than $6 billion. Over the past 10 years, no other public university in the country has risen faster in U.S. News and World Report’s national university rankings than USF. Serving more than 50,000 students on campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee, USF is designated as a Preeminent State Research University by the Florida Board of Governors, placing it in the most elite category among the state’s 12 public universities. USF has earned widespread national recognition for its success graduating under-represented minority and limited-income students at rates equal to or higher than white and higher income students. USF is a member of the American Athletic Conference. Learn more at www.usf.edu.