OIS students seek commencement recognition

7 May 2019

Joy Webb

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Students with intellectual disabilities, who have had a public and historic struggle to earn rights to equitable education, are able to attend UCCS and earn a certificate through the Office of Inclusive Services (OIS). These students are unable to walk during commencement ceremonies at UCCS, because their program is not a degree.

OIS is a program that provides students with intellectual disabilities the support to meaningfully access academic, career and social activities on campus, according to the UCCS website.

Nick Harmon in the rec center. Photo courtesy of OIS

The students in OIS  that are enrolled in a certificate program designed to accommodate their intellectual disabilities do so because their disability limits their ability to earn a degree. For them, the certificate is equivalent to a degree certificate program are not able to earn a degree.

According to Christi Kasa, the director of the OIS program and professor of the College of Education, the certificate is a 55 credit hour program that allows these students to have individualized services.

The nationally recognized OIS certificate program, which started three years ago according to Kasa, is specific to UCCS, and there are only two other programs that are similar in the state of Colorado at the University of Northern Colorado and Arapahoe Community College.

Nick Harmon, a student in the program and a junior that has been in OIS since it first began, created a petition that asks for signatures in support of OIS students to receive commencement recognition. Harmon is earning a certificate in photojournalism.

“The Petition asks UCCS to change the policy on graduations,” said Harmon, “I think it’s good.”

The commencement policy only allows students who are earning a degree to walk and participate in the graduation ceremony, not students who earn certificates.

“I am taking an arts and activism class, and for my class I wrote my petition. I had to pick a project that is important to me and relates to activism,” said Harmon.

This petition circulated around social media and through the UCCS Bulletin Board Facebook pagAt the time of press, around 9,200 people and counting have digitally signed the petition, and the goal is to reach 10,000 signatures.

The petition reads, “students at UCCS with intellectual disabilities have been told they are not allowed to walk across the stage at graduation. Every student deserves to have the same opportunities as their friends and classmates.”

Kasa stated, “This is a big thing Nick and I have talked about, is ya know, we have three students that will graduate in spring 2020, so we have like a year. Nick was one of the first three students to come, so [Nick] will be one of the first students to graduate [from the program].”

OIS students are not the only students that do not get to participate in graduation. Other students earning certificates also do not get to walk across the stage at commencement to be recognized, only students earning degrees get to do so.

Kasa said that the current policy does not allow those earning certificates to participate in the graduation ceremony.

According to Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Thomas Christensen, the  university is now looking at policies at other universities to see if this policy change is plausible.

“The issue is really one that commencement isn’t just a recognition ceremony, it is the conferral of degrees, and so historically we have only had students walk across the stage if they are getting a degree,” said Christensen. “I’m not sure how written in stone that is.”

“We want to be  really clear that we’re not upset with UCCS. We love UCCS. We are just asking for a change in that policy,” said Kasa.

According to Kasa, UCCS would be the first university in the state of Colorado to graduate people with intellectual disabilities, and in 2021, the University of Northern Colorado will have students with intellectual disabilities walk at graduation, as well as Arapahoe Community College.

The OIS certificate requires 55 credits that take four years to complete, while other certificates require around 20 credits.

Kasa said that earning the certificate is their culminating achievement.

Christensen said that he and Kasa have talked about the idea of opening commencement up to certificates with 50 credits or more, but he said that would appear to be an arbitrary decision.

“We’re trying to work through this and find a way to recognize these students,” said Christensen.

“I want to walk on the stage for when I get the certificate. I work hard on assignments for class every semester,” said Harmon.

If the policy were to be changed, the three graduating seniors, Nick Harmon, Mia Barone and Ashley Maybry would be recognized at commencement in May 2020.

According to Christensen, he has found at least one other post-secondary education institution that recognizes certificates at graduation, and he will check with similar programs at UNC and ACC.

“These students are doing amazing things; they deserve recognition. The real question is: Is commencement the right place to do the recognition?” said Christensen.

However, the university must be fair to all students that receive certificates, and Christensen said that the university must justify excluding certain students from an expansion.

According to Christensen, the university offered to recognize the students at graduation without having them walk across the stage, but the students disagreed and would like to fully participate.

Christensen said the university did offer to recognize the students at graduation without having them walk across the stage, but that the students ‘correctly’ did not feel that was the same, and that they would like to have their names announced and walk across the stage.

Christensen also said that both the chancellor, Venkat Reddy, and himself have offered to be at a different ceremony, and that “clearly could be done, because  that is what we do for some of the licensure programs and some other certificates.”

“It’s a big accomplishment, and we want to recognize it,” said Christensen. “Now it’s a matter of finding the right way to recognize it and making sure that we are still being fair to everyone.”

The university has yet to reach a solution.