Program Coordinator, Widener University
By Lisa Dukart
Empathetic from a young age, Julie Heydeman was a born social worker. Before even finishing her undergraduate degree at Widener University, she was already putting her studies to work.
For her senior project, Heydeman sought grant funding for “post-secondary options for people with intellectual disabilities,” says the Upper Darby High School grad, noting that most state-funded educational programming ends after age 21.
Thanks to Heydeman’s grant writing, the university was awarded $60,000 to implement a new program, which launched in the fall of 2018. Students take classes, interact socially and work on resume skills “to further their careers, just as any other neurotypical person would,” says Heydeman, who returned to Widener to earn her master’s degree in social work.
Upon completion, students earn a higher education certificate. Such opportunities are limited or non-existent at most institutions. “After they graduate high school, some of these individuals are waiting to get employment or getting started in other social service agencies and vocational opportunities,” Heydeman says, noting that there is often a lag time.
To aid with on-campus adjustment, students work with a peer mentor, a phase of the program Heydeman oversees. Students also interact with professors and their peers, which helps to promote all-around inclusivity while having a significant impact on skills development.
The certificate program is currently two years, but Heydeman hopes to see it mirror a traditional four-year program. This would allow students to potentially matriculate to bachelor’s programs
“It’s been wonderful seeing their self-advocacy,” says Heydeman. “Each of them has a better, stronger voice in terms of self-directing their care.”