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People With Disabilities Achieve Their College Dreams at OU

Inside OU

Grace Medina and Madison Mason smile together in the stands at an OU football game.

People With Disabilities Achieve Their College Dreams at OU

A small group of students and a unique learning program developed at OU are trailblazing what it means for people with disabilities to achieve higher education, gainful employment and independent living.

Through a program called Sooner Works – one of only approximately 20 other programs in the nation of its kind that offer such a comprehensive campus experience – adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities work toward a four-year certificate while living on campus and completing many of the same classes as students without disabilities.

The program is administered through the Zarrow Institute on Transition and Self-Determination at OU, which implements innovative research, puts findings into practice, and disseminates knowledge through high-quality products and professional development.

For one Sooner Works student, 21-year-old Grace Medina, graduating from the program means not only fulfilling a dream of going to college, but also dispelling stereotypes that people with disabilities can’t achieve such goals.

Grace Medina and her parents smile into the camera at the Llyod Noble Center at OU.
Grace Medina and her parents.

“I think I’d feel really excited and happy to graduate because I’ve been dreaming about going to college,” said Medina, who is about to begin her junior year. “I’ve had teachers tell me all through school that I couldn’t go to college. So graduating – that would be amazing. That would tell everyone, ‘No, I can actually do this.’”

Sooner Works, which accepts students between the ages of 18 and 26, admitted its first cohort in 2019 and will celebrate its first graduating class in 2023.

Students in the program typically take full-time classes that are a blend of courses designed specifically for Sooner Works, and others that are widely available like drama or education.

They’re also required to live in campus housing throughout their college career to help introduce them to living away from parents or family.

They can also participate in the same student organizations that are available to all OU students. Medina is active in a student Christian organization outside of her studies.

Upon completion of the program, Sooner Works students earn a certificate in Integrated Community Studies and receive job placement aid once they graduate.

Because the program offers a well-rounded college experience, and the educational courses are high-quality and meet best practices for programs like this, students are able to apply for federal financial aid to cover the cost of tuition and housing.

 Madison Mason and her parents stand together smiling on the OU campus.
Madison Mason and her parents.

Madison Mason, a Sooner Works senior whose father attended OU, had a similar desire to go to college.

“It was my dream to become a student,” said Mason, who wants to do social work, or give campus tours at OU after graduation. “So I told my dad, ‘I want to be an OU student for so long now.’ That was my wish. By the time I turned 20, my wish came true, and I went to college right here at OU.”

Mindy Lingo, assistant director of postsecondary education at the Zarrow Institute, said the institute is focused on promoting successful transition outcomes.

In the field of education study, “transition” refers to the movement of adolescents with disabilities from school into their next environment as young adults in the community, she said.

“After witnessing the success of several programs across the country specifically for individuals with an intellectual and/or developmental disability, the staff of the Zarrow Institute for Transition and Self-Determination felt like the University of Oklahoma could provide a similar experience at our campus that aligns with our university’s mission,” said Lingo, who helped develop the program’s curriculum.

Zarrow Institute staff, comprised of educators and social work professionals, stay in touch with Sooner Works students daily and are a resource for them when they need guidance on a range of challenges that most college students face: roommate conflicts, meetings with professors, time management skills and more.

There’s also a peer network of other OU students who are traditionally enrolled and degree seeking called Peer Partners, who spend time with Sooner Works students enjoying recreational activities and helping to acclimate them with campus living.

Mason said this was one of the best parts of attending OU.

Medina, Mason and Paige Leftwich pose for a photo with Mr. OU on campus.
Medina and Mason with OU celebrity “Mr. OU” and fellow Sooner Works student Paige Leftwich.

“I just love hanging out with peer partners,” she said. “When you hang out with them, they become your friend.”

Courses specifically offered to Sooner Works students include independent living skills like budgeting, understanding adult rights and responsibilities, healthy living, relationship building and employment skills.

Internships are also a part of the curriculum to help meet employment readiness.

Medina interned in the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education in the Institute of Child Development, where she assisted teachers and interacted with children, and Mason worked in the Anne and Henry Zarrow School of Social Work performing office duties.

Completing college-level coursework, working in internships and living away from home while forming new relationships help Sooner Works students realize their own potential.

“Just because we have a disability, doesn’t mean we can’t go to college and live life,” Medina said.

Learn more about Sooner Works here. To donate to the program and help fund a college education for other adults with disabilities, click here.


By Jaimy Jones

Article Published: Wednesday, July 27, 2022