Chloe Schmidt (left) is one of four young adults with disabilities gaining hands-on work experience this academic year through Project SEARCH internships at Iowa State University. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Iowa State University to offer internships campuswide to young adults with disabilities

Iowa State University will this year expand a program that helps young adults with disabilities gain hands-on work experience — continuing the university’s leadership with an international program that hasn’t seen many internship sites in higher education.

“While Project SEARCH is enriching the lives of people with disabilities, we believe these individuals enrich our campus just as much,” said ISU President Wendy Wintersteen. “We want Iowa State University to be a place where anyone — including individuals with disabilities — can reach their full potential, and by expanding Project SEARCH campuswide, we can provide new opportunities to fulfill that mission.”

Project SEARCH aims to secure competitive employment for people ages 18 to 30 with disabilities. The program was first implemented at Iowa State in fall 2016 by the College of Human Sciences in partnership with The Arc of Story County, a nonprofit advocacy group that partners with local businesses, providers, and community members to enrich the lives of people with disabilities.

This fall, with support from the ISU Office of the President, Project SEARCH will be offered campuswide. A memorandum of agreement has been signed, formalizing the university’s intent to expand the program to more young adults and more areas of campus.

“We’re teaching them skills that will help them move from an internship to paid employment,” said Linda Lind, a senior lecturer in special education who is leading the implementation and expansion of the program.

Increasing opportunities campuswide

The first two years of Project SEARCH at Iowa State allowed four young adults with disabilities to gain on-the-job experience each year in places such as the Fred Duffelmeyer Reading Improvement Clinic, Teacher Education Services, Center for Technology in Learning and Teaching, Joan Bice Underwood Tearoom, Child Development Laboratory School, and food science and human nutrition laboratories. The current group of interns will graduate from the program in April.

Plans now call for that number to double, to eight interns a year — and for opportunities to expand to offices, classes, and other settings across campus. The College of Human Sciences will continue to administer the program at Iowa State.

“Taking Project SEARCH campuswide is a tremendous step for this program,” said Lauren Rush, Project SEARCH instructor with The Arc of Story County. “Having internships in a variety of departments will allow more diversity in the training we are offering to these young adults. We will now be able to match interns to internships that interest them and are better suited to provide proper experience for their career goals. I believe Project SEARCH interns should be placed in every department on campus so students, who will be future employers, can begin seeing this population by their ability, not their disability.”

Participants must apply and interview for each internship, and will complete three different internships on campus during the course of the academic year. Lind said it’s her goal to have about 12 to 15 different internships to choose from. Those who have shown interest in possibly sponsoring a Project SEARCH intern in the future include those from Iowa State Athletics, and the Parking Division of the ISU Department of Public Safety.

“I think anytime when you are in a position of leadership, when you have the opportunity to impact and make a difference in someone’s life, you need to do it,” said Steve Prohm, head coach of Iowa State men’s basketball. “Hopefully, by assisting with this program, we can impact a young man or woman’s life.”

Bringing diversity to the workplace

The internship helps young adults with disabilities develop additional social skills. And it provides them hope. Two of last year’s Project SEARCH interns are now working in restaurants. One is working in a retail store, and two are working in concessions at Hilton Coliseum.

“It gives the interns a chance to think, ‘I can do something like this. I can get a job at a bank or at a hospital,’” Lind said. “They’re leaving the program with all of this hope. I watch the kids and I’ve seen them grow so much since August. They feel like they’re part of a community that they wouldn’t necessarily have the opportunity to be a part of.”

Rush said teaching vocational skills to those with developmental disabilities and assisting them in finding employment in the community are vital for their health.

“Every person wants to feel like they belong and can contribute to society,” she said. “Having those with disabilities in the workforce helps diminish stereotypes while providing hope to children with disabilities and their parents that they, too, can be successful and independent in life.”

Iowa State students, faculty, and staff have also benefited from having Project SEARCH interns on campus. The program has opened doors for Iowa State students to interact with people with disabilities and learn from them.

“Having these interns on campus has increased awareness about individuals with disabilities,” Rush said. “Iowa State students have expressed their joy in making new friends while supervisors have expressed their surprise in the abilities of our interns to learn new skills and apply what they learn effectively. Many professors have expressed their gratitude in having an intern work with them as the interns have been reducing their workload by assisting in data entry, preparing material for classes, or inputting grades.”

People with disabilities are employed at much lower rates than those without disabilities. In Iowa, only 45.2 percent of noninstitutionalized, working-age (ages 21 to 64) people with disabilities were employed in 2015, according to the American Community Survey, an ongoing statistical survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Project SEARCH is a natural fit for the College of Human Sciences. Diversity and social responsibility are key initiatives of the college, which strives to create a stimulating, holistic, and nourishing environment for people of all backgrounds, cultures, religions, socio-economic statuses, and abilities.

“This is what we preach in our classes,” Lind said. “It’s about practicing what we preach.”

Effort traditionally led by businesses

Project SEARCH, formerly known as Students Exploring Alternative Resources at Children’s Hospital, is an international business-led collaboration that enables young adults with developmental disabilities (intellectual disabilities, visual impairment, hearing impairment, orthopedic impairment, autism) to gain and maintain employment through training and career exploration.

The program was developed in 1996 at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and has grown to more than 300 sites across the United States and Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and the Netherlands.

Iowa State is a leader in this effort because there haven’t been many Project SEARCH internship sites in higher education.

Other Project SEARCH locations in Iowa include ChildServe in Johnston, Des Moines Area Community College in Ankeny, the Windsor Heights Hy-Vee, Lucas County Health Center in Chariton, Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines and Mason City, UnityPoint Health’s St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids, UnityPoint Health’s Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines, UnityPoint Health’s Allen Hospital in Waterloo, and UnityPoint Health’s Trinity Bettendorf.