Jessica Walker is a first-year graduate student in the doctorate program for Industrial/ Organizational Psychology at Texas A&M University. Jessica was one of three fellows selected by Texas A&M’s Center of Disability and Development for the Leadership Training for Diversity (LTD) fellowship program. For the past several years, Jessica has been involved with programs for disabilities (e.g. Best Buddies, Camp Champions, Mental Health Mental Retardation) and promoting diversity, such as through her position as VP of Multicultural Programming in Residential Housing Association. Jessica’s strong interest in diversity and leadership development led to her involvement with the ADVANCE Social Sciences Team at Texas A&M, which is a National Science Foundations (NSF) funded grant for the increase and advancement of women in STEM disciplines. With her research and knowledge obtained from this fellowship, Jessica’s ambition is to assist those with disabilities in the workplace.
1. Please describe your activities during your fellowship experience. Describe your final capstone project(s).
My time as a Diversity Fellow has been quite an adventure. I entered the fellowship with what I believed to be a knowledgeable background on diversity; however, this fellowship has introduced me to brand new issues. The longer I have been in this fellowship, the more topics/areas I become aware of and want to learn about. During my year as a fellow, I focused most of my time on supported decision-making (SDM), a relatively new alternative to guardianship. Through the invitation of my advisor, I was able to attend meetings (regionally and nationally) on the topics of supported decision-making. I also had the opportunity to attend professional development sessions on disabilities and work for the university’s Bridge to Career summer camp for individuals with developmental disorders. My major project was to write two papers worthy of journal submissions about SDM. I took the lead on writing a paper about the theoretical and legal aspects of SDM, which was submitted to a journal for review this past summer. The second paper I am writing covers SDM and aging individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities, which I hope to submit to a journal by the end of this fall semester. My time as a Diversity Fellow has increased my knowledge, yet made me realize how much more there is to learn and to conduct research in this area.
2. Who did your project inform, help, influence or impact? (UCEDD, individual, community, state) How?
Our hope is for people to acknowledge the importance of SDM for individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities and to put it into practice. If the two papers get accepted into the journals, these papers will inform the general public of the need for SDM and its benefits. Our research on SDM will also be presented at two national conferences, Division on Career Development and Transition (DCDT) and AUCD. At DCDT, my advisor, Dr. Zhang, my co-fellow, Dianey Leal, and I will present in a symposium on SDM. At AUCD, Dianey and I will be presenting a poster on the SDM paper we wrote together. Additionally, I will be presenting my research on SDM in a panel at AUCD. Through journals, posters, and conference symposiums, we hope to inform and influence a wide audience on SDM and the need to implement SDM rather than guardianship.
3. Why did you choose to work on that project(s)?
I chose to work on SDM because of its impact on individuals with intellectual/developmental disorders and the relatively new alternative to guardianship it offers this community. I have a strong passion for advocating and supporting individuals with intellectual/developmental disorders. Thus, I felt drawn to this project because I believe there is not enough attention and awareness of this alternative to guardianship. I want the community to be better informed of their options so that they can be better supported, have more rights, and have a higher quality of life and life satisfaction.
4. What did you gain from being a Diversity Fellow?
I have gained a plethora of knowledge and I have had the opportunity to connect with various people leading the SDM movement in research and advocacy. Through an abundance of training sessions led by Dr. Stough, I have been taught so much on topics from the history of individuals with disabilities and person-first language to person-centered planning. I have also greatly appreciated the opportunity to meet others researching SDM and learning about the legislative side of implementing SDM into society. As a student of Texas A&M, I was so proud of my state to learn that Texas was the first state to pass a bill on SDM. Furthermore, I have gained a new appreciation for the disability community. Moreover, I have gained a heightened desire to advocate for individuals with disabilities.
5. How will this experience impact your education or career decisions?
This experience as a Diversity Fellow has influenced my research interests in graduate school. I would love to continue doing research in the area of disabilities, in particular, disabilities in the workplace. My interest in learning about how individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities succeed in the workplace and how I can improve their workplace experiences has increased. This experience has also led me to seek out courses at my university covering diversity-related issues. I have gotten more involved in diversity-related research and coursework, and I hope that my curiosity in this area continues to strengthen because there is so much more to research and learn on diversity topics. I also know now that I desire to have a future that incorporates disability research and I desire to make an impact in this community.
6. What are your future goals? Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?
My future goal is to continue doing research regarding the disability community. Five years from now, I see myself remaining involved with the disability community and being an active advocate. Overall, I want to advocate for the rights individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities deserve that guardianship strips them of. Furthermore, I desire to help them succeed in the workplace, since the workplace is a source of identity and it can create income stability, a sense of purpose, life skills, and so much more for them.
7. What recommendations do you have for other fellows?
I recommend to just dive into all of the opportunities this fellowship will offer. From webinars to site visits to professional development events, this fellowship will offer a plethora of opportunities for fellows to increase their education regarding an array of diversity issues. I recommend asking your advisor about regional or national meetings that may be nearby that you can attend that are related to your projects. If there is an event your advisor recommends, but you are unsure of attending due to scheduling conflicts, I encourage rearranging your schedule so as to attend the event/meeting. Some of my most memorable moments were when I traveled to Austin, TX for meetings on SDM and being introduced to prominent figures in the SDM movement. It has been inspiring and eye-opening to be able to connect to the larger community of researchers on SDM. My time in this fellowship has felt as though it has flown by, and there is so much more I want to learn and projects I want to get involved in, thus I recommend to make the most of it. I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to be a diversity fellow for Texas A&M University’s Center on Disability and Development (CDD).