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New funding supports expansion of MNE OASIS program

Thursday, January 22, 2015

OASIS graduate Eddie Aceves works as Parkhurst grill cook.

Mercyhurst University’s North East campus is expanding higher education offerings for adults with intellectual disabilities through the university’s OASIS program, thanks to a $60,000 grant from the D.R.E.A.M. Partnership.

One of the primary uses for the grant will be to establish a residential component enabling OASIS students, who have typically commuted, to live on the North East campus. OASIS is a non-credit certificate program for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities interested in pursuing academic and vocational training in a traditional college setting.

“This grant represents a great opportunity for OASIS,” said Sara Kitchen, OASIS program director. “We expect the program to grow significantly with this funding.”

Currently, OASIS students have the option to pursue a certificate in culinary arts or hospitality during the one-year program. In addition, students develop their vocational skills during a 60-hour internship, preparing them for meaningful employment in the community upon graduation.

Now, with the opportunity to live on campus, OASIS students will live in the same dormitory complexes as traditional students, with additional support from a graduate assistant, Kitchen said. Additional training will also be provided for current RAs.

“We want the OASIS student experience to be as close as possible to that of traditional residential students,” Kitchen said. “They’re here, taking classes on campus. Now they’ll be further integrated into the Mercyhurst North East community.”

The current lack of a residential option available through OASIS limits the applicant pool to students living in the area who can easily commute to campus. The new component will enable students from outside the region to apply, Kitchen said, adding that news of the grant and the OASIS expansion has already generated interest from applicants as far away as Florida.

“This year we have a total of five students in the program, but for the upcoming year, we’d like to draw at least eight per concentration,” Kitchen said. “Now that we’re able to offer a residential component, it opens up the program to students with disabilities across the nation.”

Eddie Aceves, 28, of Erie is a 2014 OASIS graduate who credits the program for his job as grill cook at Parkhurst Dining Services, food service provider at Mercyhurst University.

He started as a dishwasher but within a month was moved to the grill.

“The OASIS program was good for me,” he said, noting the individualized attention through which he not only developed skills but confidence.

Aceves has minimal use of his right hand, having had a stroke as an infant, he explained. Mercyhurst accommodated his needs by building a special cutting board for him so that he could learn and practice different kinds of cuts, like julienne and dice.

In addition to providing a residential option for students, Kitchen said she expects the grant to fund OASIS scholarships and payment for students in unpaid internships, as well as aid in the development of additional OASIS concentrations, possibly as soon as next year. Potential new concentrations under consideration include business/office skills and childcare.

“We are so excited to be able to expand the training we provide for these students on the college campus,” Kitchen said.  “There aren’t many programs like this available for people with disabilities. What’s more, it is consistent with the mission forged by our founders – the Sisters of Mercy – to provide education to underserved populations.”

Mercyhurst North East got its start on that same foundation as an opportunity and career college for students seeking one- and two-year programs. In recent years, Mercyhurst reached out to another underserved population with its urban education initiative at Erie’s Booker T. Washington Center. Its growing OASIS program, now a program housed within the Institute for Applied Behavioral Studies at Mercyhurst, began in 2008 as a collaboration with Erie Homes for Children and Adults. The program is also supported by the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.

Enrollment in OASIS is open to students ages 18 and older with documented intellectual or developmental disabilities. For more information, please contact Sara Kitchen at 814-725-6250 or skitchen@mercyhurst.edu.

The D.R.E.A.M. Partnership, an advocacy group for students with intellectual disabilities and postsecondary education, provided the grant through the Access College-Education Support (ACES) Project of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry’s Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.