WVU Country Roads Program graduates celebrate together as they toss their graduation caps into the air in front of Woodburn Hall on the Morgantown Campus. (WVU Photo/Kayla Richard)

WVU program that is changing student lives called ‘gold standard’ of inclusive postsecondary education

MORGANTOWN — Monongalia County native Spencer Hession is a new West Virginia University graduate who is leaving the University better prepared than when he arrived because of his time in the Country Roads Program, designed for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“I learned how to take the bus and how to use my money for necessities like food and water,” he said. “I learned how to get homework in on time. I learned how to manage money and I also learned how to fit in at WVU.”

Not only does the program have a tremendous impact on the lives of students like Hession, it has become a gold standard for seamless integration of inclusive postsecondary education programs across the nation.

Lesley Cottrell is the director of the WVU Center for Excellence in Disabilities which is home to the Country Roads Program, the only fully inclusive postsecondary education program in the state that is embedded within the existing University structure, courses and systems.

“From the beginning, we have had full support from our WVU family,” Cottrell said. “I’m sure it isn’t easy for any of our partners to add a completely new program and student group into systems for on-campus housing, student services, admissions and registration, especially when we are asking them to consider students who need additional services to get them ready to transition to college.

“Despite that tall ask, no one has ever said ‘no’. Instead, they jump in, learn more about what we need, and figure out the best way to make it happen. The Country Roads Program has received the University’s full support and has the total passion of WVU behind it — administration, faculty, staff and students.”

The program prepares students with disabilities for independence by providing academic courses, social engagement and real-world work experiences.

Participants live in shared residential housing, participate in social activities across campus, and receive career education and training. They take federally approved courses for the program and have the option to audit established courses within the WVU catalog.

Students also enjoy the full range of college life by attending sporting events, going to WVUp All Night, participating in groups and clubs on campus, eating at dining halls, taking the PRT, and doing everything that other WVU students do daily.

The program works — evidenced by the celebration of a record number of graduates during May Commencement.

Berkeley County native Logan Cummings successfully completed the program with support from his family.

“I appreciate my parents helping me pay for college so I could go here, be in the present and make good memories,” he said. “This was a great time here.”

Country Roads Curriculum Coordinator Kayla Richard said the program, now entering its fifth year, is growing quickly.

“Our program has admitted 21 students across 12 counties in the Mountain State,” she said. “We also have had 12 students admitted from six other states including Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, California, Michigan and New Jersey. All of these states have their own inclusive postsecondary education programs, yet these 12 students chose to come to West Virginia, to our program.

“While Country Roads is still in its infancy compared to some other programs, we continue to grow and graduate students with limitless potential to go on and do amazing things that before would not have been possible.”

Country Roads utilizes peer mentors to support students as they acclimate to life on campus. Peer mentors are current WVU students who volunteer their time, which can often count towards internships, practicum, training or service hours. The program is currently seeking peer mentors for the 2024-25 term.

Anyone interested in learning more about the Country Roads Program or becoming a peer mentor can contact the CED via email at countryroads@hsc.wvu.edu or by phone at 304-293-4692.

Learn more about the student experience in the Country Roads Program.

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