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RiverHawks Scholar Program receives federal designation

NSU’s RiverHawks Scholar ProgramNSU’s RiverHawks Scholar Program receives federal designation
Students now eligible to receive federal aid for college costs

(Tahlequah, Oklahoma) — Federal aid assistance for college expenses is now available for students enrolled in Northeastern State University’s RiverHawks Scholar Program.

The first program of its kind in Oklahoma, the RiverHawks Scholar Program provides a college-style living and learning environment for individuals that have mild/moderate intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. Students enroll in a four-year certificate program with the goal of learning how to live independently and achieve gainful employment in the career of their choice.

Through a partnership with the Oklahoma nonprofit Lead, Learn, Live, NSU established the RiverHawks Scholar Program and accepted its first cohort of students in the 2018-19 academic year. The nonprofit contributed $330,000 to get the program up and sustainable which is matched by the university’s equal commitment to offering this program.

“NSU is a flagship program for our state,” Julie Lackey, founder of Lead, Learn, Live, said during a virtual open house on Friday. “They were the very first in the state of Oklahoma to step forward, and the support is very comprehensive.”

As NSU seeks to further develop the program, starting this year, current and future students of the program are eligible to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for funding to help cover college expenses.

RiverHawks Scholar Program Director Justin Chase said the U.S. Department of Education in late January approved a Comprehensive Transition Program designation for the NSU program. He added this opens up financial aid options such as a Pell or Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity grants as well as federal work study programs.

“It was a very big process to achieve the designation,” Chase said. “It’s one of those benchmarks for transition programs like ours that really provides nationwide recognition which helps recruiting and from a very practical standpoint helps current and future students afford the program.”

Chase said the designation does not allow students of the program to qualify for federally subsidized student loans. He added the amount of financial aid a student may be eligible for through FAFSA may vary as it is tethered to different factors such as a family’s household income. It costs around $23,500 per year to be part of the program. Chase said that includes courses, housing, meal plans and fees. It does not cover textbooks that run around $100 per semester.

NSU officials hope access to federal student aid will help make the program more accessible to lower income families. Chase said it is very common for students in transition programs to travel out of state to find one that is the right fit for them.

Chase said a future step is spreading the word about the federal aid opportunity. He added they plan to reach out to individuals that aid students in making financial aid decisions for college, such as high school guidance counsellors, to inform them of this new opportunity.

Through a partnership with the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services, Oklahoma residents interested in participating in the program can also take advantage of financial help opportunities at the state level for such programs. Chase said students from Oklahoma that qualify for the program are eligible to receive financial assistance of $6,000 per year. He added seeking federal aid does not disqualify people from also pursuing help from the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services.

Renee Sansom Briscoe, transition coordinator at the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services, said they are pleased to partner with NSU on this program. She said the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services' end goal is employment and if that means going through a certification program like the one at NSU then they are available to help. Students enrolled in the RiverHawks Scholar Program take part in different internships as part of the program as they work towards certificate completion.

Lackey said programs such as the RiverHawks Scholar Program is very beneficial for individuals with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities and communities. She added that statistics show that students who complete these programs have much better outcomes in terms of employment opportunities and being able to live independently.

Chase said the application deadline for the 2021-22 class has been extended from the previous Feb. 1 deadline and encourages those interested to complete it as soon as possible.

For more information about the RiverHawks Scholar Program visit https://academics.nsuok.edu/ continuingeducation/ RiverHawksScholarProgram/ or contact Chase at 918-444-3711 and chase04@nsuok.edu.