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University of North Texas Wins Prestigious Star Award for Innovative ELEVAR Program

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DENTON, Texas – The University of North Texas (UNT) has been awarded the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s 2023 Star Award for its groundbreaking ELEVAR program. This recognition comes as part of the board’s “Building a Talent Strong Texas” initiative, aimed at fostering excellence in higher education.

ELEVAR (Empower, Learn, Excel, enVision, Advance, Rise) is an inclusive post-secondary education program specifically designed for students with intellectual disabilities. Notably, UNT’s program is the first of its kind at a Hispanic-Serving Institution in the United States and ranks among the top three inclusive postsecondary programs in the country, as per the Think College Coordinating Center.

The program offers a unique four-year college experience to its students, blending traditional zero-credit college courses with specialized ELEVAR courses. These courses cover essential life skills, including financial literacy and health education, and are tailored to align with each student’s career aspirations.

Alex Bartolo, a participant in the ELEVAR program, shared his positive experiences, noting the enjoyable nature of his classes and the valuable feedback from instructors. ELEVAR co-founder and assistant vice president for research and innovation, Brenda Barrio, emphasized the program’s commitment to providing a genuine college experience and removing barriers for these students, which could lead to future competitive employment opportunities.

Currently, ELEVAR is in its third year, serving a total of 22 students. The living arrangements for these students vary, with the second and third cohorts residing on the UNT campus, while the first cohort lives off-campus.

Barrio expressed her enthusiasm about the program’s impact, highlighting UNT’s welcoming and inclusive environment. ELEVAR not only focuses on academics but also offers personalized plans that consider each student’s goals and dreams, guiding them towards relevant classes and internships.

The success of the program is evident in its results: students from the first two cohorts are employed in paid internships, earning above minimum wage. The third cohort is set to begin internships in the spring, after a semester of acclimating to college life.

ELEVAR also encourages self-advocacy among its students. One student recently shared her ELEVAR experience with aides of members of the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C. Barrio notes the joy in witnessing the students’ growth and the increasing awareness and inclusivity within the UNT community.

The program’s success has sparked interest from other higher education institutions seeking guidance to establish similar programs. ELEVAR frequently hosts open houses and campus visits for high school students with intellectual disabilities, their teachers, and interested families, showcasing the possibilities for these students in higher education.

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