Funds will help increase the success of students with learning differences

Students with learning differences at East Carolina University and across the country will have better avenues to learning thanks to a $1.5 million grant awarded to ECU by the Oak Foundation.

The grant will be used to expand the reach of the College STAR (Supporting Transition Access and Retention) program, a collaborative initiative designed to help college campuses become more welcoming of students with learning and attention differences. The project is guided by a partnership of anchor campuses that include ECU, Appalachian State University and Fayetteville State University.

The program, which originated as a UNC System initiative, is now headquartered at ECU and provides a network of supports for students who are capable of college success, but who struggle academically because they learn differently. By balancing direct support for students with instructional support provided to faculty who teach increasingly diverse groups of learners, the initiative is making a positive difference for a wide variety of students.

The $1.5 million grant will fund the fourth phase of the College STAR program, expanding partnerships beyond the current North Carolina campuses to a national scope.

“This is another way that ECU is taking a leadership role on the national stage. Student success is first and foremost with our mission, and our commitment to initiatives like College STAR will help us impact the success of students across our country,” said ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton. “We recognize that becoming a national leader takes partnerships and teamwork and we are so very appreciative of the opportunity to work with the Oak Foundation and our partner campuses on this important project.”

Dr. Sarah Williams, director of ECU’s STEPP program, presents during a College STAR workshop. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

Dr. Sarah Williams, director of ECU’s STEPP program, presents during a College STAR workshop. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

“After our early years with College STAR we feel like we’ve learned so much,” said Dr. Sarah Williams, director of ECU’s STEPP Program and principal investigator for the College STAR initiative. “It’s exciting to think about expanding that learning nationwide to make a large and positive impact.”

The Walter and Marie Williams STEPP program at ECU was the first student support program to participate in the College STAR project, and is designed to help students with learning disabilities transition to post-secondary education and to provide support throughout their college experience.

Kevin Mantica is an ECU sophomore who participates in STEPP. Working with mentors in the program has helped motivate him, he said.

“Not every college provides something like this – to give the students all the tools that they need to be successful,” said Mantica. “It’s going to impact a lot more students.”

Funding received through the grant will help create a national network that will facilitate collaboration, research, resource development, and technical assistance related to ensuring that colleges and universities are places where students with learning and attention differences can excel.

For example, the project is building an online repository of professional development materials in a wide variety of disciplines that will enable faculty from around the world to see practical use of the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in the college setting. UDL principles take into consideration the different ways people learn and can inform flexible learning environments that benefit a wide range of students, including those with learning differences.

“ECU has been an incredible partner in this work,” said Stacy Parker-Fisher, former director of the Learning Differences Program at the Oak Foundation. “This is something that instructors are embracing. They see the difference this is making for their students.”

The Oak Foundation is an international organization based in Geneva, Switzerland and has an office in Chapel Hill with a mission to “address issues of global, social and environmental concern, particularly those that have a major impact on the lives of the disadvantaged.” Their learning differences program has been a generous supporter of College STAR and ECU’s STEPP Program.