WSU program serves students with intellectual and development disabilities
Evan Henniger (above, with his parents) comes from a long line of Cougars. Growing up, there was never a question in his mind that he’d be one, too, someday.
His parents, Mike and Lisa Henniger, weren’t as sure. Because he was born with an intellectual disability (IDD), the idea that Evan could enjoy the same kind of WSU experience as his siblings seemed unlikely.
“All of our kids went to Washington State,” explained Lisa. “When it came time for Evan, we started very gently letting him know not everyone goes to college, that this might not be his path.”
That all changed when Mike Trevisan, dean of the WSU College of Education, invited them to dinner.
“Mike and Lisa shared that they had a son named Evan with an intellectual disability, who was hoping and dreaming of one day being a Cougar,” said Trevisan.
“They wanted to know if the College of Education would consider a program for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and we discussed what was likely needed to develop, implement, and maintain a program like that at WSU—the significant resources—involved. Mike and Lisa were adamant that they would help however they could.”
Over the following 18 months, the Hennigers and a small group of families made a series of generous donations to the college to help realize such a program.
Thanks to that early, visionary support, in 2018 the College of Education launched the Washington State University Responsibility Opportunity Advocacy and Respect (WSU ROAR) program—a unique, inclusive two-year program for Cougars with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Evan was part of the program’s inaugural cohort of scholars. “He thrived in the ROAR program,” said Mike Henniger. “Everything he did, Evan found success in. He learned and grew, and we supported him.”
Daring to dream
Today, ROAR is a federally accredited Comprehensive Transition Program, offering students with IDD individualized services and an authentic Cougar experience. It is the only program of its kind at a four-year university in Washington State and one of only three in the Pacific Northwest.
Admission is competitive, with only 45 percent of all applicants accepted. Those admitted enjoy the opportunity to audit university courses; build employment, academic, and independent living skills; and connect to a network of peers. Students reside in dorms and apartments on the Pullman campus, creating a vibrant and supportive community that fosters personal growth, independence, and meaningful connections.
“We ensure our students are in the driver’s seat of their education and employment choices through person-centered planning,” said Kristi Tippett, interim ROAR director. “Many of our scholars haven’t dared to dream. We are committed to nurturing self-determination and self-advocacy and honor the dignity of dreaming big and taking risks.”
Independent living, finding friendships, building careers
The impact of WSU ROAR is best measured by its success. Over the past five years, the program has served 42 students, most transitioning to independent living and finding friendships and fulfilling careers.
Joaquin Pace, a ROAR student and current capstone scholar from Richmond, WA, is working towards his dream of becoming a veterinary technician.
“ROAR has been a great experience for me,” said Joaquin. “Being a part of campus, especially Raptor Club and the Wildlife Society, has allowed me to connect with fellow students in ways I never thought possible. I always liked animals and wanted to work with them. ROAR is helping make that possible.”
Mia Crump (left), a first-year ROAR scholar from Greenlake, WA, found a chance to flex her independence while working toward a music career.
“Getting accepted into WSU ROAR was a dream come true for me,” said Mia. “I was so overwhelmed with joy that I cried. My family was so proud of me. This program is opening doors for me to pursue my passion for music.” Crump also looks forward to showing her younger brother around campus one day when he becomes a Cougar.
Alexis Brown, a first-year ROAR scholar from Pasco, WA, is the first member of her family to attend college. She found a supportive community in ROAR while working towards a career as a veterinary assistant.
“In high school, I didn’t really have friends, but here, it’s different,” said Alexis. “I’ve found a community of amazing people. It’s like I’ve finally found my place. I’m working towards my dream of working with animals, and with ROAR, I know I’ll make it.”
Evan found the program to be like a family, so much so that he now calls Pullman his “forever home” and continues to give back as a peer mentor and volunteer.
“I’m proud to give back,” he said. “I know it can be nerve-wracking at first, but anyone considering ROAR should take that chance. It’s a journey that can truly change your life. ROAR is like a family.”
Scholarships remain a critical element for growth
Having celebrated its fifth anniversary in October, there is a collective hope that ROAR will continue to grow to meet expanding interest.
“WSU ROAR scholars have been well supported on campus and in the community from the beginning, but we would love to build more partnerships and expand academic, internship, and employment opportunities for our growing number of students,” said Tippett.
In 2023, philanthropic support from donors provided $160,000 in scholarships to ROAR scholars. Despite this extraordinary figure, scholarships remain a critical element for growth. While ROAR students qualify for full-time Pell Grants, federal supplemental educational opportunity grants, and federal work-study, scholarships provide a lifeline for families who, having been told college wouldn’t be possible for their student with IDD, did not plan for the expense.
Like their son, Mike and Lisa Henniger remain involved with the ROAR program, establishing the Evan Henniger Opportunity Fund in 2019 to support ROAR scholarships and programming. ”Parents who may have thought college wasn’t an option for their kids need to understand that it is, and they need to start planning now,” Mike Henniger said.
To learn more about ROAR and how you can support the program, visit https://education.wsu.edu/undergradprograms/wsuroar.
To see more photos of ROAR students in action, view our WSU ROAR Program Flickr album.