Boulder woman among first to graduate through inclusive higher education program – The Denver Post

Isabelle Woloson’s joy at graduating from the University of Northern Colorado was infectious.

Dressed in the traditional cap, navy blue robe and blue-and-yellow stole, Woloson danced in celebration, holding a bouquet of roses and wearing a wide grin, in a video taken by her sister. She walked across the stage at commencement alongside her classmates to accept her certificate in communications.

“I felt like my heart was beating really fast and I was a little nervous,” she said. “But I’m glad I graduated.”

Woloson, a Boulder resident who has Down syndrome, is among the first Coloradans with an intellectual or developmental disability to graduate from a Colorado college or university. The video of her graduation day celebration, posted by her sister, has garnered 1.3 million views and thousands of comments on TikTok.

The University of Northern Colorado, University of Colorado Colorado Springs and Arapahoe Community College are the state’s first three higher education institutions to offer students with intellectual and developmental disabilities the opportunity to attend college, made possible through the state’s 2016 Inclusive Higher Education Act.

The first five students to benefit from the act graduated from Arapahoe Community College and UCCS in 2020, said Tracy Murphy, executive director for IN!, a nonprofit that advocates for inclusive higher education in Colorado. Woloson was among the first graduating class of four at UNC. Six others graduated from other institutions this year.

IN! was founded by parents of students who also advocated for the Inclusive Higher Education Act to allow people with developmental and intellectual disabilities to pursue a post-secondary education. There are now 70 students enrolled through the act at Arapahoe Community College, UCCS and UNC.

Students take classes to earn between 36-72 credit hours in an emphasis of their choosing, like communication, healthcare or early childhood education, and graduate with a postsecondary certificate that’s recognized by the state.

Students live on campus all four years, Murphy said, and participate in all of the same activities as their classmates. They’re also supported by peer mentors when they need support with studying, note-taking or even going to a football game.

“I think that’s really the main goal, that they are as included as any of their peers,” Murphy said.

Woloson quickly adapted to campus life, joining the swim team, participating in Greek life and going to as many football games as possible. Her favorite part of college was meeting people, she said.

“The environment felt really inclusive and I felt like I could do more, like working and not just school-related stuff,” she said. “I really liked making new relationships, making new friendships and going to events around campus.”

Woloson’s mom, Eliza Woloson, said she is thankful for the work of countless advocates who have pushed inclusive policies forward.

“Now Isabelle is really forging the way for future students, and that’s really exciting,” Eliza Woloson said. “When I talk to parents in other states and other universities, I hear that there’s no reason a student can’t succeed if they have the passion for education and the drive to succeed. All students, no matter what state they live in, if they have the drive to go to school should have the opportunity to go to school.”

Colorado was among the last states in the country to offer inclusive higher education, and now Murphy and the team at IN! are looking at ways to expand access across the state.

“If these students are given a chance, they can be active members of their community and productive members of the workforce. This is really giving them that chance,” Murphy said.

Isabelle Woloson is celebrating her graduation with a family trip to Michigan, and she already has an eye on what’s next.

“I have an apartment in my hometown and I’m thinking about starting a small business,” she said. “I want to be a life coach.”

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