This fall, UC Davis will enroll 12 extraordinary new students. All will have intellectual disabilities. They’ll be called Redwood SEED (Supported Education to Elevate Diversity) Scholars, part of California’s first four-year residential program for students with intellectual disability associated with conditions such as autism, traumatic brain injury, fragile X syndrome and Down syndrome.

“It’s a game-changer. It’s the only thing like it in the west,” said Beth Foraker, an instructor in the UC Davis School of Education and co-founder of Redwood SEED Scholars.

Foraker has envisioned a program like this for years. Her 21-year-old son Patrick has Down syndrome, and she knows firsthand how limited the post-secondary options are for people like him.

“Ninety-seven percent of adults with intellectual disabilities are living in poverty,” she said. “This is a chance for them to go on to make a living wage, to live an authentic life of true freedom.”

Students in the program will have an opportunity to live on campus, engage in social activities and organizations, take college classes and pursue an internship or job. They’ll leave at the end of four years with a meaningful credential, prepared for employment success.

A potential model

The UC Davis MIND Institute and the university’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion will jointly run the program, which will be fully integrated into the campus community. It’s funded largely by a $2.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, and the goal is to create a model that could be used by all schools in the UC and CSU systems. Renetta Tull, vice chancellor for diversity, equity, and inclusion, is also a principal investigator on the grant.

“People with intellectual disability should have the same rights to post-secondary education options as everyone else,” said Leonard Abbeduto, director of the MIND Institute.

Redwood SEED scholars will have a support system, including undergraduate students who will serve as peer mentors, helping with academics as well as social activities, health and wellness and oversight of internships. A curriculum that combines regular UC Davis courses with some special courses focused on relevant issues such as independent living, is also planned.

The program gets its name from the T. Elliot Weier Redwood Grove on the UC Davis campus. “Redwoods don’t grow in the Central Valley,” said Foraker. “Our summers are too hot, and our winters not wet enough, yet this grove flourishes thanks to careful tending, a habitat that allows them to thrive and people willing to make the impossible happen. Redwood SEED Scholars will take their cue from these on-campus giants.”

This story first appeared in the spring/summer 2020 issue of UC Davis Magazine.