All students have their favorite places to escape the stress of finals week. But during a study break last December, senior Shelby Wills found herself in a place she had never imagined: in a swimming pool with a classmate who has a severe physical disability.
Wills works as a personal assistant to students with physical disabilities through Beckwith Residential Support Services. She thought that nothing could faze her after four years of assisting, but a request for a dip in the pool found Wills out of her depth. With the student’s repeated assurances of his ability to float and a skeptical lifeguard keeping watch, Wills and her charge got in.
“We had a blast! It was very relaxing,” Wills said of the experience. “I halfway supported him, but he did float like he said. That was something I’d never expected, taking someone who can’t walk out of his wheelchair and throwing him in the pool.”
Students with disabilities can enjoy all elements of campus life, such as the recreation center pool, thanks to the Beckwith program. A partnership between the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services within the College of Applied Health Sciences and University Housing, the BRSS program provides support to students with physical disabilities with the goal of helping them make the transition to college and equipping them for life after graduation.
When Nugent Hall opened in 2010, one wing was dedicated to specially equipped and accessible rooms for up to 26 students with severe physical restrictions. A key element of support for the residents is the personal assistant program.
Each year, BRSS employs from 70 to more than 100 undergraduate students to work as personal assistants. PAs help residents with tasks throughout the day – from getting out of bed in the morning, to getting bundled up to face the cold Illinois winter, to taking bathroom breaks between classes. Residents schedule PAs for shifts, but there are also “floaters” on duty at all times to step in and lend a hand, as well as a handful of live-in personal assistants who have rooms in Nugent Hall.
While the BRSS program provides training and support for PAs, individual residents are responsible for hiring and scheduling PAs according to their needs. The residents determine when they need assistance and what tasks should be done, then hire from the list of Beckman-trained PAs. Residents approve hours and complete evaluations for their PAs.
“The students are learning how to manage their lives and manage staff,” said Beckwith director Patricia Malik.
“Coming to school is a very challenging transition for many of our residents because typically their parents have done everything for them,” Malik said. “The other interesting part is that you have people who are peers helping you. You have a lot of things in common that you can share. I think they learn a tremendous amount from each other.”
The goal, according to Malik, is to empower residents to take control of their own daily lives so that they can take those skills with them after graduation.
“The ultimate purpose of Beckwith is that you will get a University of Illinois degree and you can go anywhere in the world that you want to go to reach your dreams. You have options. You know it’s going to be hard, but you have the skills and knowledge to do it.”
The shift scheduling system gives the PAs a large degree of flexibility. They can look at the open shifts and their own schedules – for example, a student can take a morning wake-up shift for just one or two days of the week when it doesn’t conflict with classes, rather than reporting every day at the same time. The challenge, however, is in learning how each of the residents they work for prefers things to be done.
“If they’re working for five residents, they’ve got five different bosses. They have five people who want things done a little bit different way,” Malik said. “We’ve heard from our students who are looking at nursing that they got more experience in listening to what people want and how they want things done, and in developing relationships at Beckwith than they did in their clinical rotations.”
While many of the students in the PA program are studying nursing or another health care field, anyone from any major can apply – no experience required.
Wills, a graphic design major from Oak Park, Ill., had never spent time around people with disabilities before being hired as a private personal assistant to student Ani Hunt in Wills’ freshman year.
“It showed me an entirely different side of campus life,” Wills said. “It was good just being immersed with students with disabilities and seeing that side of the world that I knew about but didn’t understand. I know U. of I. is one of the biggest supporters of students with disabilities and I can see why.”
Hunt’s mother stayed for the first weeks of class to train Wills, but the first day on their own found the two students each wondering if they could cope. The transition from living at home to being cared for by strangers was difficult and emotional for Hunt, but the girls bonded over their mutual homesickness and the challenges of navigating college life.
Through working as a PA, Wills learned about compassion, independence, ease in unfamiliar situations and responsibility. As Hunt became more independent, Wills decided to become a floater through the Beckwith program, working with many different residents. Wills now works as a live-in PA at Nugent Hall.
“Working as a PA has deepened my experience as a student here,” Wills said. “I have deep friendships with the people who live on the first floor. It inspired me to see their transitions from living here to living on their own and doing things that they came in thinking they couldn’t do. Seeing them succeed inspired me to do things on my own too. It’s really cool to watch, and gives me faith in the program and why I’m working here.”
Anyone interested in learning more about the personal assistant program or about Beckwith Residential Support Services can contact associate director Katherine Johnson.
“I say if you’re good with people, I say do it,” Wills said. “You don’t have to be a nursing major. You don’t have to know specifics. They train you well. It’s very gratifying work, and you learn a lot about yourself. There’s a very strong community sense. It’s different from anywhere else that you go on campus. I 100 percent recommend it.”