Every day on the UNCG campus, paths cross. People come together. They share ideas and goals. At these meaningful intersections of conversation and collaboration, lives often change.

Such is the case for Mary Kate White and Rebecca DiSandro, whose paths crossed in 2012. Their meeting wasn’t by chance; it was carefully orchestrated by Dr. Stuart Schleien. Schleien teaches a course that partners Community and Therapeutic Recreation students with same-age peers who have a variety of disabilities. 

“My goal as a teacher, scholar and advocate for people with disabilities is to help educate students about creating inclusive learning, social, recreational and sports environments at the university and throughout the broader community,” says Schleien, professor and chair of the Community and Therapeutic Recreation department. He developed the Peer Companion Program that he’s administered for the past 15 years.

“This class gives you the hands-on experience of working closely with someone with a disability, to learn how they feel, how they thrive,” Mary Kate says. “Dr. Schleien teaches you to see the person before you see the disability. A lot of people don’t have that mindset. But I never saw Rebecca’s disability before I saw her. What I saw was a beautiful person who shines from the inside out. Someone who doesn’t let what society may think stop her. I admire that.”

Rebecca is a student in UNCG’s Beyond Academics program, established in 2007 to provide academic and therapeutic supports for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. One of only a few programs of its kind in the nation, Beyond Academics offers a four-year certificate course of study that emphasizes higher education, self-determination, community inclusion, career development and independent living. The program was recently featured on Fox8 News and as a DSBA feature story.

“I just love being a college student at UNCG and getting to live on my own,” Rebecca says.

Through Schleien’s class, Mary Kate and Rebecca became study partners. Immediately, a friendship blossomed. The course required spending 15 hours together outside of class, but who was counting? They took trips to Friendly Center. They attended soccer and football games. They watched movies. Every Monday, they met at Bojangles for dinner. “I wanted to make her college experience something great to remember,” Mary Kate says. “She’s been a part of my life ever since.”

Mary Kate graduated in 2013 with a degree in Community and Therapeutic Recreation. She’s married now and is the proud mother of infant twin girls. Rebecca went to her wedding. And she’s an aunt to Mary Kate’s daughters.

“I’m glad I’ve gotten to be her friend. But she’s been a better friend to me,” Mary Kate says. “She’s been so supportive. She’s the type of person you always want to have on your side. And she lives life in a way that I can only hope my girls will live one day, with endless imagination, joy and determination.”

Rebecca has even helped Mary Kate come to a decision about her professional goals: She wants to pursue a career in inspirational writing. “I hope to inspire people the way Rebecca has inspired me to be a better friend, daughter, wife and mom. A better person. Our world needs inspiration.”

Schleien’s Peer Companion Program is also more of what we need, says Mary Kate. “UNCG sets itself apart from other universities. A program like Beyond Academics is very special. These students have lunch in the EUC just like we do. They walk down College Avenue. They go to Yum Yum’s. Take the HEAT bus. Grab coffee in Starbucks. They wear blue and gold, just like we do. They are UNCG, just like we are.”

Story by Andrea Spencer, University Relations

Photography by David Wilson, University Relations