Donor support will offer life-changing opportunities to students with intellectual disabilities.

ELEVAR is a research-based, inclusive college program for students with intellectual disabilities.

ELEVAR is a research-based, inclusive college program for students with intellectual disabilities.

For Brenda Barrio (’06, ’08 M.S., ’13 Ph.D.), a case of homesickness changed the course of her life and set her on a path to create countless opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities at the University of North Texas.

Barrio was a first-generation college student studying international business at the University of Missouri when, missing the ranches she grew up around in El Paso, she started volunteering at a therapeutic riding center and had her first experience working with people with disabilities.

“I fell in love with that and realized it was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Barrio says.

Though her goals came into focus, the way forward was not simple. When she had to leave Missouri and return to El Paso due to family financial issues, Barrio started emailing colleges in Texas for more information. Most schools directed her to a website or sent a catalog in the mail, but UNT’s Dr. Bertina Combes reached out directly to offer support and advice. The two started chatting via email — a connection that anchored Barrio to UNT.

Barrio, who went on to study special education and earned her bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and Ph.D. from UNT, says there are two reasons that compelled her to stay — she believed in the university, and she received life-changing scholarships.

“The financial issues with my family continued, so it’s not like we could pay for school. But I had so many scholarships — from $250 to $1,000 — that I was able to stay,” she says. “I believe in the power of donors. Without them, I probably would have dropped out, and who knows what I would be doing.”

Now an associate professor of special education at UNT, she’s depending on donors to support students entering the university through UNT ELEVAR, a new program she created that aims to remove the barriers to higher education for students with intellectual disabilities.

ELEVAR is a research-based, inclusive college program for students with intellectual disabilities. Students enrolled in the program will have a traditional, four-year college experience with the individualized modifications and support they need to reach their personal goals. Assistance in the first two years will lean toward university life and academics, then the focus will shift to career development and employment in the third and fourth year. The progressive program, only the 2nd of its kind in Texas, will emphasize community engagement and help students find jobs outside the university and, later, careers relevant to their skills and interests.

ELEVAR’s inaugural class of five students will start their UNT journeys in the fall of 2021, and future cohorts will each have 10-12 students. And while the program has received start-up support through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education Transition Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities, many students will need help paying about $33,000 per year to cover tuition, program fees and room and board.

“What we’re really trying to focus on is creating equitable opportunities — that’s what UNT is about, and we take that very seriously,” says Barrio. “We want to make sure we have the funds to get our students through.”

For the triple UNT alumna with a passion for paying it forward, the idea is to have a lifelong impact on a traditionally marginalized community and make UNT more inclusive and diverse.

“Many people don’t think about disability as part of diversity, and that’s something we’re trying to change,” says Barrio. “I’m confident that ELEVAR will help shift those perceptions, change that narrative and offer more students a seat at the table and the chance for their voices to be heard.”

Your gift to UNT ELEVAR will empower students with intellectual disabilities to become more independent and prepared for competitive employment. Give today to help create inclusive opportunities at UNT.