First Students Enter New College Experience Program for Those With Intellectual Disabilities

Director Ashley Bradley, second from left, is shown with EMPOWER students Grant Alley, Mary Borman and Nick Lange.
Photo by Heidi Wells

Director Ashley Bradley, second from left, is shown with EMPOWER students Grant Alley, Mary Borman and Nick Lange.

The first three students in the new four-year, non-degree EMPOWER program at the University of Arkansas are proud to blaze a trail for more who will come after them.

Nick Lange is a graduate of a private school in the Dallas area. He would like to work in the hotel or other hospitality industry.

"We have been honored to show that kids like us can have a college experience," Lange said. "The first time I walked on campus, I knew it was the place I wanted to be."

When Lange's parents heard about the new program that offers a four-year, non-degree college experience program for students with intellectual disabilities, they jumped at the chance for their son. EMPOWER stands for Educate, Motivate, Prepare, Opportunity, Workplace Readiness, Employment and Responsibility.

"My friend's mom sent an email to my mom after she found out about the program on a Friday," Lange said. "My dad was on the phone Monday with Dr. Tom Smith."

Smith, a University professor of special education and former dean of the College of Education and Health Professions, led the establishment of the program. He was involved in a similar program in Alabama in the 1980s and co-wrote several textbooks about teaching students with special needs in inclusive settings.

"It's time we provided an opportunity for this group of students to enjoy a college experience while improving their academic, independent living, and employment skills," Smith said about EMPOWER. "The university community has been extremely supportive of this program; it will soon become a major strength of our campus and community." 

Ashley Bradley was hired in the spring to direct the day-to-day operations. She holds a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling and a bachelor's degree in communication disorders. She formerly worked for Arkansas Support Network in Springdale since 2010.

The EMPOWER program incorporates functional academics, independent living, employment, social and leisure skills, and health and wellness skills in a public university setting with the goal of producing self-sufficient young adults. Students must demonstrate the ability to safely live independently, sustain employment and socially integrate during their enrollment. The program progresses with an emphasis on workplace experience, community integration and independent living with transitionally reduced support. Programs similar to EMPOWER are in numerous universities across the country and are growing rapidly, Smith said. 

EMPOWER students pay the same tuition and fees paid by all undergraduate students at the U of A, including out-of-state tuition and fees when applicable. In addition, they pay a $5,000 per semester program fee that funds the extra support they receive.

"Other students on campus serve as mentors for the EMPOWER students during breaks, lunch and sometimes during class," Bradley said. Students interested in being mentors can contact her for more information at

Mary Borman, another EMPOWER student, grew up in Fayetteville, the youngest of five children, including sisters who attended the U of A. She is interested in working in nursing or computer science.

"I want to have a career and one way is to go to college classes," she said.

Borman said she likes her University Perspectives class, a freshman-level college transition course, in particular learning about the history of the university. She received a privately funded Warriors for Walt scholarship from Ruby's Rainbow, an organization that provides scholarships for adults with Down syndrome to attend post-secondary education, enrichment or vocational classes. To find out how to give to U of A programs such as EMPOWER, visit the online giving website.

Grant Alley of Little Rock is the third student enrolled in the first semester of EMPOWER. He heard the program could open opportunities for him. He would like to someday work in either the field of sports or of history. He's traveled to several cities in the United States and been to Mexico. He took a year off after high school before starting the EMPOWER program.

"I enjoy working on assignments, and I like taking breaks in the (Arkansas) Union," Alley said.

The Union is a hub for student activities and has stores, offices and various services.

Lange has been a Razorback fan since the eighth grade, when his sister considered coming to the U of A. He is the only one of the three students living in a residence hall on campus. The program will formally add an on-campus housing component for all EMPOWER students next year.

"I am excited to be here," Lange said. "I'm also excited because you have four seasons here. In Dallas, you have two seasons - hot and cold."


Heidi S. Wells, director of communications
College of Education and Health Professions


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