Sagebrushers season 2 ep. 17: Path to Independence Program Director Jessica Keefhaver

For the past 10 years, the P2I program has offered a college experience to students with intellectual disabilities

President Brian Sandoval sits next to Jessica Keefhaver in a podcasting studio. Both people hold their hands in the wolf sign.

President Brian Sandoval (left) and Keefhaver (right) discuss how the program prepares students for future employment and more.

Sagebrushers season 2 ep. 17: Path to Independence Program Director Jessica Keefhaver

For the past 10 years, the P2I program has offered a college experience to students with intellectual disabilities

President Brian Sandoval (left) and Keefhaver (right) discuss how the program prepares students for future employment and more.

President Brian Sandoval sits next to Jessica Keefhaver in a podcasting studio. Both people hold their hands in the wolf sign.

President Brian Sandoval (left) and Keefhaver (right) discuss how the program prepares students for future employment and more.

Sagebrushers podcast identifier with a sketch of a sagebrush in the background
Sagebrushers is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and other major platforms

In the last episode of Sagebrushers for 2023, University of Nevada, Reno President Brian Sandoval speaks with Jessica Keefhaver, the director of the Path to Independence Program within the College of Education and Human Development. The program, known as P2I, is an inclusive, two-year, non-degree certificate program offering a college experience to students with intellectual disabilities through the Nevada Center for Excellence in Disabilities. The program currently accepts eight to 10 students into each cohort.

During the episode, Sandoval and Keefhaver discuss Keefhaver’s background as an educator working for Washoe County School District for 17 years. They also explore how the P2I program supports its students, assisting with course selection, offering social activities and providing housing options. In addition, Keefhaver shares the experience of watching P2I students graduate during spring commencement each year and gives insight into future plans for the program.

Sagebrushers is available on SpotifyApple Podcasts and other major podcast platforms, with new episodes every month.

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Sagebrushers – S2 Ep. 17 – Path to Independence Program Director Jessica Keefhaver

Join host President Brian Sandoval as he and Path to Independence Program Director Jessica Keefhaver explore the important role the Path to Independence program plays on campus for students with intellectual disabilities.

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Jessica Keefhaver: Our goal for our students is competitive integrated employment upon graduation so that our students are living, experiencing life, making a competitive wage, and able to live in their communities as inclusive members.

Brian Sandoval: In this episode of Sagebrushers, we welcome Jessica Keefhaver, director of the Path to Independence program in the College of Education and Human Development. I'm Brian Sandoval. I'm a proud graduate and president of the University, and I'm your host of Sagebrushers.

The Path to Independence program, also known as P2I, is an inclusive two two-year, non-degree certificate program offering a college experience to students with intellectual disabilities through the Nevada Center for Excellence in Disabilities. Jessica has worked with the P2I program for more than five years, becoming the director in July 2022. She's also a licensed educator who spent 17 years in Washoe County School District, prior to joining the University. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in special education and disability studies.

Today's podcast is being recorded at the Reynolds School of Journalism on our University's campus. We welcome you to Sagebrushers. I'm excited to learn about you and to explore this amazing program that we have on campus. So before we dive into the P2I program, let's talk about your background as an educator.

Jessica Keefhaver: Thank you. Thanks for that really nice introduction. Yes, so I spent 17 years in Washoe County. I started as a paraprofessional at Marvin Picollo, worked as a family advocate with the family resource centers of the Washoe County School District, and then I taught for six years in a comprehensive life skills program at Hug High School. It was a really great experience. You know, all of those experiences have really led me to where I am and I've learned bits and pieces from all of the different interactions and relationships I built there. And I really value what led me to here and really hope that with my Ph.D. I'm able to keep growing and expanding and giving back in different ways that help expand opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities.

Brian Sandoval: So, that's fantastic. Did you grow up in northern Nevada or did you come here from somewhere else?

Jessica Keefhaver: Pretty much. We moved to Nevada when I was five and I grew up in Winnemucca.

Brian Sandoval: Winnemucca, right, Buckaroo, right!?

[Both speakers laugh.]

And did you attend the University here?

Jessica Keefhaver: I did attend for a year. Life circumstances kind of changed my path, and I actually got my bachelor's through Western Governor's University. An online program, while working full-time and also did my master's at KU while teaching full-time. So, I have a really online method of learning and now being a Ph.D. student, it's actually interesting to have a cohort and to be in person in classes and it's a really different switch, different modality of learning, but I'm really enjoying my experience here.

Brian Sandoval: That's fantastic. So as I shared a brief introduction and talked just a tiny bit about the P2I program earlier, I mean I'm really proud of this program, but can you provide our listeners with a little more detail about the P2I program and its history?

Jessica Keefhaver: Yeah, thank you. We're really proud of it as well. So, Mary Bryant was our founding director. She founded P2I in 2013 with one student. The second year there were two students in the second cohort and we've gradually built upon that. Now we have eight students in each cohort and we're starting our application for our next cohort. So we have hopes to grow and expand the program. Our students have experiences in academics, independent learning or independent living, sorry. And employment opportunities. So, our academic coordinator, Jaycee Robertson Smith, she works with students to help them find classes aligned with their interests, help them with finding educational coaches and accessing different DRC supports or finding out what accommodations or modifications they might need depending on their circumstances. Our employment coordinator, Nicole Wadden, she works with students to find employment opportunities on campus and in the community. Our goal for our students is competitive integrated employment upon graduation so that our students are living, experiencing life, making a competitive wage and able to live in their communities as inclusive members.

Brian Sandoval: So let's get a little more specific in terms of if you know, you're a family with a student with disabilities, how do you come to the University? What's a day in the life experience like on campus? What types of classes do the students attend?

Jessica Keefhaver: Yeah, so our students attend typical UNR classes, aligned with their interests. So that can be anything in the 100, maybe 200 level. We have students taking anything from sociology to education courses. We've had a few students that are very interested in history and take a lot of history courses, PE and dance courses. Really anything that doesn't require prerequisites is where they start. And then if they can attain the prerequisite standard, they move on to the next class. So the 100-level or intro-level courses are really open to them as long as we're not facing any barriers in terms of "you have to be in this degree program" to attend. So really, we work with our students to determine what are they interested in. We do a form of personal centered planning, person-centered planning, which is asking them what their career goals are or what their life goals are, and we break that down into how can we support you to achieve those goals.

What kind of classes can we get you into? What kind of employment experiences will help you towards that path of what you'd like to do with your life in five or 10 years? So we are a really comprehensive, holistic program. Students do need to come with some prerequisite skillsets. We really encourage independence and interdependence in ways that help our students gain a lot of soft skills that all college students gain as far as showing up to class on time, getting your homework done, advocating for assistance when you need it. Our students really grow significantly in their first semester because a lot of times this is the first opportunity they've had to really flush those skills out and really apply them.

Brian Sandoval: So how do prospective students become aware of the program? Do you go out and identify students or do they become aware? How does that work?

Jessica Keefhaver: We have developed partnerships with state agencies, school districts, so we share a lot of information on our social media. For example, right now our application window is open. We're holding information sessions where we invite families and prospective students to come to campus to learn about our program and the application process. We work with Washoe County School District. We actually have worked with Lyon County, Nevada Connections Academy. We currently have a student out of Bishop, California. So we work with Inyo County School District as well. And really we speak to future educators by talking in classes here. We get a lot of information out through not only social media, word of mouth and working with the school districts, with the career centers, with school counselors, and with special education teachers.

Brian Sandoval: Now are there students on campus that work with the P2I students?

Jessica Keefhaver: Yeah, so we call them educational coaches or ED coaches for short. They are student workers. We do pay them. We employ anywhere between 15 to 20 student workers per semester. We also offer paid internships. We are having our first Pack Internship Grant Program. We're working on interviewing some Pack interns and hopefully, we'll get a couple for the spring semester. And we've really developed good relationships with different departments on campus. For example, in human development and family sciences, Jenna Dewar really works with us to get some interns and they work with us for at least a semester. We've had really good experiences with community health sciences or the School of Public Health in getting interns in, too, and again, whenever possible we're looking to pay our interns. I really value getting students paid experiences in addition to just the experience.

Brian Sandoval: That's fantastic. So what are some of the program's biggest accomplishments since you joined in 2018?

Jessica Keefhaver: Wow, we've had so many! It's been a lot of growth in what feels like a pretty short amount of time. One of our students and I were on a podcast called "Autism Goes to College." I've been told it's one of their most listened-to episodes, which is really exciting, and it won, the series itself, won an Anthem award, so that's pretty cool and exciting. We got to engage in commencement, which is huge. Fall, excuse me, spring 2022 was our first ability to participate in University commencements and that was a really, really big win, really big exciting experience for us and our students. We've also, we're piloting housing and having some students experience living in the dorms. In fall of 2022, there was a collaboration between Dean Easton Brooks from the College of Education Human Development, and Dr. Randall Owen from the Nevada Center for Excellence in Disabilities and we have a student lounge space that was really integral in helping our students have a place for them on campus. Like a lot of other identity-based spaces on campus. It's really neat for them to have a place where they can come when they're looking for maybe a little extra assistance or maybe they're having an opportunity to just hang out with their peers and have a good time. We do a lot of fun events in there, but we also support, sometimes they can be studying with their ED coach in there and they meet with our academic coordinator and our employment coordinator to talk about their goals. So it's really important that we have a space for our students to be able to seek advisement and to also just have a place to call home.

Brian Sandoval: Well, congratulations on all of that! And you talked a little bit about commencement and one of the most rewarding parts of commencement for me is congratulating the P2I graduates as they walk across the stage. Will you take our listeners through what that experience looks like and what it means for the graduates and their families?

Jessica Keefhaver: Yeah, it's a big day. It's a very emotional day. Sometimes I think we're a little bit more emotional than the students, but we're there for them. We help them navigate kind of the busyness that is commencement and we sit with them just to help them in case they need any support throughout the ceremony. It's really great to watch them interact with their cohort classmates, see them get congratulations from other people that are graduating that day. We sit in the crowd and enjoy the experience, take a ton of behind-the-scenes pictures and just really enjoy watching them take it all in. The best part is hearing them individually recognized and seeing them have the opportunity to walk across the stage, you know, help them acknowledge all the hard work they've done. The two years goes by really fast in our program, but hearing people cheer for them and afterward taking pictures with their families and just seeing the hustle and bustle and having them have that same experience is really valuable. I think for some families I think it's a little bittersweet because two years does go by really fast, but I also think it's super exciting for them to just have that transitional experience like any other college graduate to say, what's next? What do I do next, and where am I going next? And it's been really great to watch students have that experience.

Brian Sandoval: No, it makes me emotional just thinking about it. It is a wonderful, wonderful moment.

Jessica Keefhaver: It's a great day.

Brian Sandoval: So you've been in your position for about a year and a half now, and you just said what's next? So what plans do you have for the program moving forward?

Jessica Keefhaver: There are a lot of plans on the horizon. There is a new accreditation process being developed for programs like ours across the country. There are over 300 inclusive post-secondary ed. programs across the country right now. And Think College is developing accreditation standards. So that should come out in about, I think it's 2025. And so, looking into what does that look like for our students and program, what kind of things are we going to need to gather to go through that accreditation process? So that's really exciting. One of the biggest things that we need to consider is sustainability and funding as a program. So we're really looking at what are our funding opportunities. Where can we expand? What opportunities are we not tapping into? Where can we look for different opportunities to improve our program, expand our services, and help grow this opportunity for inclusive post-secondary education for students with intellectual disabilities? We're also looking for a more long-term resolution for housing. Having an opportunity for students to live on campus would open up opportunities for more rural students to participate in our program.

Brian Sandoval: So you talked about the increasing enrollment of the program. Is there a limit or do you have a lot of room for capacity?

Jessica Keefhaver: When we look at our applicants and we actually have a really big activity date where we invite students to campus for the day to see how are they adjusting to the environment, what kind of communication supports are they going to need? And one of the things that we look for are kind of those readiness signs that, “hey, we're ready to come to college, this environment's not too overwhelming.” It's a big campus. So we generally look to accept around eight students per cohort right now. We might expand to 10. What we're looking for is making sure that we can meet the needs of the students that are looking to come into our program and also that we're the right fit for them. I think it's really important to know that everybody needs to find the college placement that's right for them and making sure that we can meet their needs and that we're aligned with their interests and their career goals.

So it's really important for students and families to look at their options and look at their opportunities and we hope we can be a good fit for everybody. But one of the things to keep in mind is, you know, we have a great community college system here, too. So if they're looking for more of a vocational component, that might be a better track for them. We don't have welding classes here, so looking at what best aligns with their career goals and outcomes and making sure that we're able to help them work towards that career path. We want to be a stepping stone in what's next in their lives. And so we look to accept between eight and 10 students in the fall of 2024.

Brian Sandoval: And is this a program that's unique to the University of Nevada, or do other college campuses have programs like this?

Jessica Keefhaver: Yes. So, there are only two in Nevada. So UNLV also does have a program, and across the country, there's over 300 right now and it's constantly growing. There's actually going to be a new grant cycle out, it's called a TPSID grant, and we're hoping to apply for that in 2025, but it's a few years out still. And that grant is to expand programs like ours across the country to expand or create new ones. And so, I'm actually part of a statewide alliance that's looking to expand opportunities between California and Nevada for students with intellectual disabilities to pursue post-secondary education. So it's a new state alliance with California. We just started a couple weeks ago. And so we're really looking to make those connections so that we can provide more opportunities through the community college system as well and improve the program and access opportunities for students at the universities.

Brian Sandoval: Well, that's incredible. And unfortunately, that is all the time we have for this episode of Sagebrushers and Jessica, thank you so much for being on the program and talking about the Path to Independence program. It really is transformative and I'm grateful for everything you do and your team does.

Jessica Keefhaver: Great. Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure to be here.

Brian Sandoval: You're welcome, and thank you. So ladies and gentlemen, join us next time for another episode of Sagebrushers as we continue to tell the stories that make our University special and unique. Until then, I'm University President Brian Sandoval. Go pack!


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