By Rachel Zuckerman
On the 10th floor of Stanley Hall, Taralynn Young pours her heart into caring for students with intellectual, cognitive, and learning disabilities.
Young is a resident assistant for University of Iowa REACH (Realizing Educational and Career Hopes), a two-year certificate program for students with numerous disabilities, housed in the College of Education.
Young, a junior studying therapeutic recreation and pursuing a certificate in disability studies, said the experience has changed her life. It is her second year on the job, and she plans to return next year for a third.
“I didn’t come into the job thinking I would fall so much in love with it, but now I can’t imagine not being an RA,” she said through her contagious smile.
REACH is a transition program that focuses on preparing students for employment and independent living through such classes as cooking, computers, money management, and social skills, according to its website. During the second year of the program, all students participate in an internship on campus or in the local community to hone their career skills.
The program made headlines earlier this month when a video went viral of an overjoyed student opening his acceptance letter into the program.
Young is one of four REACH RAs who serve around 50 residents. Two years ago, she apprehensively applied for the position despite having little experience working with people with disabilities.
“I’m glad it wasn’t what I was expecting, because I had preconceived notions that were so wrong,” she said.
Young has always been motivated by the idea of helping others. Prior to becoming a REACH RA, she was a child-life major because she wanted to work with at-risk youth. Since getting the job, however, she has changed her major and is now considering a career helping people with disabilities.
Behind her rectangle glasses, Young’s bright blue eyes welled with tears as she talked about her graduation, which is still more than a year away, because it will mean leaving the REACH Program.
“I don’t know what my college experience would have been like if I hadn’t gotten this job,” she said. “I don’t know what my views of people with disabilities would be like if I hadn’t gotten it. I don’t know what my major would be like if I hadn’t gotten it because this has shaped me so much.”
Her residents have a wide range of disabilities from dyslexia to Down syndrome to Asperger’s. One of her favorite parts of the job, Young said, is “just seeing past the disability and seeing that they are so similar to us.”
“They have dreams, and they have goals, and they have interests, and they have dislikes, and they get upset, and they laugh, and they’re happy,” she said. “They’re just like us.”
Young strives to create an inclusive environment, but she said one of her biggest challenges is getting traditional students to open up to REACH students.
“We try to help them realize that they are just like you,” she said. “They are here to have the same college experience that you are and gain the same skills you are trying to gain.”
The UI was the first school in the Big Ten to have a program of this kind, said Pam Ries, the REACH program director. The specialized program attracts students from across the state of Iowa and around the country.
Ries said REACH is mutually beneficial for students in the program and for the UI.
“Having them as part of our campus enriches everybody’s life,” she said. “Our students are our best ambassadors … just being around them brightens your day.”
Ries noted that the REACH Program is highly dependent on the work of RAs like Young who live and work closely with the students in the program.
Through her job, Young said the issues she deals with are very different from those of a traditional RA. Rather than focusing on policy violations, such as having alcohol in the residence hall, she often spends time helping with social problems.
For example, she may have to stop a student from yelling in the hallway at 3 a.m. or console a resident who is distressed about being teased earlier in the day. Young’s patience and down-to-earth character benefit her in this aspect of the job.
Young does her best to get to know all of her residents on a personal level. She said the relationships she’s developed are the most meaningful aspect of her work.
“It is such a great thing to have these students come in and to not even know their names … but weeks later you guys are clicking. And that’s something special,” she said.
Young’s creativity and dedication can be seen in the events she plans. She said her residents still talk about their cookout last spring in Lower City Park. They spent the day eating, playing yard games, and soaking up the sunlight.
Young also finds a way to make everyday activities fun for her residents. Whether it is going to Burge Marketplace for dinner together or having a movie night on the floor, she helps her students find joy in the little things.
Young’s residents used a wide variety of adjectives to describe her: kind, caring, spunky, sassy, outgoing, energetic, generous, and responsible.
Many of them noted that she is skilled at planning events, mediating conflicts, and keeping them out of trouble. Some said that she helps them pack for trips, adjust the temperature in their rooms, and is always there if they need to talk after a bad day.
They are some of her biggest fans. Resident Jack Emptage, a first-year REACH student, summed it up best.
“What would we do without her?” he asked.
Emily Miller, another REACH RA, said Young is dedicated to making sure that students on the floor are being treated the way they deserve to be treated.
Miller noted that during “rounds,” the time when RAs walk the hallways each night, Young often stops to check in with students, play cards with people in the lounge, and talk to residents about their day.
She also loves to spend her Friday nights and weekends hanging out with her residents. Through efforts like these, Young is always looking to strengthen relationships.
“You can never stop building that relationship with students. You think you know everything there is to know about a student, but you just keep learning more,” she said.
Young hopes to see programs such as REACH continue to grow and become more available to interested students in the future.
“If there are more programs, there are more opportunities for individuals if they so choose to go to college,” she said. “And that’s great because who doesn’t want a college experience?”
Beyond REACH, Young is also involved on campus as a student leader. She is on the Dance Marathon leadership team, serves as vice president of a student organization, and volunteers in the child psychology unit at the UI.
“I try to stay involved a little bit, but you know my heart belongs here,” she said in the lounge on the 10th floor of Stanley.
Note: On May 5, REACH will host its second Golf Outing and Fashion Show Fundraising Event. The event is open to the public.