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WKU was recently awarded two grants pertaining to students living with Autism Spectrum Disorder and the university’s Special Education and Speech Pathology programs.

The grants include awards to the Brinkley Student Employment Fellowship Program and a $1.1 million grant to support the recruitment, scholarships and graduation of 30 students through a five-semester program called “Preparing Rural Educators and Professionals for Students with High-Intensity Needs or Project, according to press releases. It was awarded to WKU by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education. 

Molly Swietek, co-project director of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, said the program awarded a $246,863 grant to the Brinkley Student Employment Fellowship program to advance the developmental training program for students living with Autism Spectrum Disorder after discovering a lack of employment opportunities for individuals with ASD and a need to educate employers about autism.

“As student employees, they gain valuable experience in public television and radio production, and learn general job skills in preparation for entering the workforce post-graduation,” Swietek said.

Swietek also said working with the Suzanne Vitale Clinical Education Complex and the Kelly Autism Program’s Circle of Support is a way to educate other public broadcasting organizations and area businesses about the benefits of employing people with ASD.

“The result of our initial needs assessment is the project Embracing Differences, Finding Strengths: A Public Broadcasting Model for Autism Inclusion,” Swietek said. “We are very dedicated to serving the community in meaningful and impactful ways, and we’re honored to receive CPB’s support to help provide this very worthy public service.”

Established in 2017, The Brinkley Student Employment Fellowship Program, began employing, preparing and training an average of 40 WKU students and Brinkley Fellows with ASD a year.

“With the tremendous support of WKU and CPB, we’re able to enhance our mission to serve the public in innovative and impactful ways,” Brinkley said in a press release.

WKU is among four institutions receiving additional funding to extend and improve their programs over the next two years after receiving a $10,000 grant in 2018 to plan a project focusing on educational needs surrounding the ASD community.

WKU President Timothy Caboni said in the press release a key goal at WKU is to find ways to elevate the community, state and nation. This project coincides with that goal. 

"Through this grant, not only will students with ASD be educated in what's expected of them in the workforce, the workforce will be educated in the value of these students," Caboni said. 

An advisory committee of national public broadcasting station leaders will advise WKU's team to make sure ASD inclusion is a part of the system. 

WKU also received a grant to support students seeking degrees to work with those who have disabilities like ASD, which was written by Christina Noel, an associate professor within WKU’s College of Education and Behavioral Studies, who will lead the Project PREP initiative, as stated in the press release.

Noel’s primary area of research is students with autism or students with significant disabilities.

“The thing I care truly most about in this life other than my three-year-old son is improving outcomes for individuals with disabilities,” Noel said.

Noel describes the grant, awarded by the  U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education, as a professional preparation grant that College of Education and Behavioral Studies will share with the College of Health and Human Services.

“It is specifically trying to target training professionals with high-intensity needs,” Noel explained of the grant’s purpose. 

Noel said students with special needs in the state of Kentucky are not as successful as people would like them to be. 

“A good solution would be putting better quality professionals in classrooms,” Noel said. 

Corinne Murphy, Dean of WKU’s College of Education and Behavioral Sciences, said that WKU is the only Kentucky university that received this grant from the Department of Education.

“The Department of Education rated Project PREP on the following areas,” Murphy said.  “Significance of the project to the state of Kentucky, the quality of project services, the quality of project evaluation and the quality of project personnel.”

Murphy said it was WKU’s performance in these categories that led to the university being awarded the grant. 

The program combines graduate coursework with fieldwork, allowing students to graduate with a Masters of Education in Moderate Severe Disabilities or a Master of Arts in Speech-Language Pathology, according to the press release.

The goal of the program, stated in the press release, is to “remove barriers associated with working in rural communities.”

Students interested in participating in Project PREP’s first cohort for Fall 2020 can apply through WKU’s Graduate School before the March 1 deadline.

These two grants gifted to WKU total $1.35 million and will assist the university in assisting students with ASD as well as students working towards a degree in special needs education and speech pathology.

News reporter Abbey Nutter can be reached at abbigail.nutter168@topper.wku.edu. Follow her on Twitter at @abbeynutter.

News reporter Cassady Lamb can be reached at cassady.lamb667@topper.wku.edu. Follow her on Twitter at @lambp0p.

Abbey Nutter is an academics and facilities reporter for the College Heights Herald. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter.

Cassady Lamb is a general assignment reporter for the College Heights Herald. She is a freshman from Louisville, KY.