Leading by Inclusion

November 26, 2019  

Leading by Inclusion

Early on this scholar knew that inclusion — in education, postsecondary opportunities, careers, and our community — would be her life’s passion. 

The Road to Leadership Was Paved in Third Grade

Anna Fedewa was only nine years old, but she knew something wasn’t right. Some students were isolated at school and she did not understand why. 

“I do remember being really confused like, ‘Why did they have to stay in this one classroom because they have a physical disability or because they can’t read as well as other students? They just had this one label or this one definition that kept them from everyone else,” she said. 

In those days, students with disabilities weren’t included in mainstream classrooms and were separated from students without disabilities. During her recess and lunch periods, Anna began spending time with pre-K students with disabilities in a self-contained classroom. Anna recognized students — both with disabilities and not — shared more similarities than differences. “The more I grew and the more I got to know the students, I realized, yes, they have this diagnosis, this disability, but they look so much like me and my peers.”

As Anna got older, she became emboldened to act. In high school, she started working after school and preparing for college, and she realized her friends with disabilities were not. “They weren’t getting those opportunities,” she said. “I began to realize I could be an advocate for them. I could, in my career and in my degree. I could work towards something bigger than just myself and bigger than just them, creating change on a wider scale.” 

Anna dedicated her high school years to addressing inclusion for students with disabilities. Her work culminated in a guide she helped create to provide support and opportunities for transition from high school to postsecondary life. 

That was only the beginning for Anna. A brand new, first-of-its-kind program at Texas A&M University would give her an opportunity to ‘create change on a wider scale’ as early as her freshman year.  

WATCH VIDEO: Anna Fedewa is supporting students with disabilities and shining her light across the Texas A&M College Station campus.

The Aggie Way is Anna’s Way

Texas A&M, the largest university in Texas with an enrollment of more than 60,000 students, feels like a very small campus when you walk it with Anna. Every minute or so, she calls out to someone she knows, stops to give a hug, or waves across the sidewalk. 

Anna is the embodiment of what I think is the Aggie Spirit,” says Dr. Carly Gilson, Assistant Professor of Special Education in Educational Psychology. “She’s just one of those people who has that natural light about her and shines wherever she goes.” 

Aggie culture focuses on friendliness “Howdy” is the typical greeting — belonging, and being part of an extensive network with unique terminology, artifacts, and traditions. It’s also about being involved and engaged on campus. Anna holds a leadership role in multiple service organizations, as well as in her sorority, Pi Beta Phi, and can be found yelling alongside her friends on game day. She is also a recipient of the Charles Butt Scholarship for Aspiring Teachers and is active among the Texas A&M scholars cohort. 

When asked what it means to be an Aggie, Matthew Carrizal, one of Anna’s friends, readily responds. Donning a Texas A&M t-shirt and hat, he says, “It means we have to be confident in ourselves.” 

When asked what he thinks makes Anna a leader, Matthew remarks, “She has all the guts it takes to be a leader.”

(Top) Anna at her sorority house, Pi Beta Phi. (Bottom) Anna with her Aggie ACHIEVE friends at a football game in College Station; Anna places a penny on Sully’s boot for good luck on exams, one of the many traditions at Texas A&M; Aggie ACHIEVE student Lexi Villarreal is immersed in Aggie culture. 

A Worthy Field of Study

Anna’s reputation preceded her arrival in the School of Education at A&M, both because of family ties and her rigorous work on special education issues in high school. 

Anna’s mother graduated from Texas A&M in 1993 with a degree in elementary education. She worked as a teacher in Katy ISD. Her mother’s work played a big role in Anna’s journey to teaching. Growing up, Anna’s parents encouraged her to “be anything you want.” When she decided to pursue a degree in special education to teach in Texas public schools, her parents said: “We see the worth that education has and we see the worth that you have and what you could bring to it.

(Left) Anna’s mother holds her in front of the School of Education in College Station where she graduated in 1993. (Right) Anna is a sophomore at the School of Education, majoring in Special Education.

Modeling Inclusion

In fall 2019, Texas A&M became the first university in the state to offer an inclusive, four-year postsecondary education program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

Five students enrolled in the first cohort of Aggie ACHIEVE (Academic Courses in Higher Inclusive Education and Vocational Experiences). The Aggie ACHIEVE students participate in weekly seminars focused on independent living, career awareness, and self-determination. They live in the residence halls, participate in student clubs and organizations, and are fully immersed in the Aggie experience –  “gig ‘ems” and all. 

As a first-year student, Anna worked with the educational psychology department to develop a student-led service organization in support of the Aggie ACHIEVE students. She is now president of ACHIEVEMates. 

A testament to her vast network of friends and the Aggie spirit of service, nearly 100 students applied to be ACHIEVEMates. Anna interviewed all of them and selected 70. They work closely with the Aggie ACHIEVE students to support academics, health and wellness, and self-advocacy. 

Getting involved, Anna says, is simple. “Invite them to lunch, sit with them at the dining hall, if you see them on the bus, ask if you can with them, walk them to class.”

But it goes deeper than that for Anna. Supporting students with disabilities isn’t only about being a leader in advocacy, research, and practice in the field. It’s about her friends. 

(Left) Matthew Carrizal meets with Dr. Olivia Hester, Program Director of Aggie ACHIEVE; Matthew presents a vision board to his classmates; Lexi and Anna attend a freshman seminar taught by Dr. Carly Gilson.

‘Bigger Than Just Myself’

Anna’s professor, Dr. Gilson, admires the journey her student is on.She’s really passionate about special education, and even more than that, she’s passionate about helping people and making the world a better place.” 

Anna doesn’t approach inclusion as something that should begin and end at the school doors. Or something that is simply a nice thing to pursue. She knows that perceptions and discrimination of those with disabilities extend into every aspect of life. Changing that begins by empowering these students with a strong education and encouragement to follow their dreams — the same thing everyone wants and deserves.

“They are just so determined and they have so much that they want to give and so much that they can give. I think often we say, “That’s great,” and we celebrate that, but then we don’t actually do what needs to be done to make that happen … These students can be teachers. They can be filmmakers. As a society, we should encourage that, and we should open those opportunities for them.

Anna’s friend, Matthew, who is part of the Aggie ACHIEVE program, wants just that – to be an animator or filmmaker. Anna says he will be. And society needs to acknowledge and support those goals.

When asked what he wants people to think of him, Matthew says, “What I want them to know is how significant I am. I’m one of the few people who can do lots of things that no one else can do.”

Working with A&M and the Aggie ACHIEVE program has shown Anna the power of her impact. I’m being challenged and I’m being shown what my path is and what my purpose is.

“It’s just my heart was so into it and it is what I look forward to. I realized this is my calling, this is what it feels like to understand your purpose is just doing something you love and not even having to think about it.”

“She’s going to be a phenomenal teacher. She will also be an advocate, a researcher, and a uniter,” said Dr. Gilson.  

Dr. Olivia Hester, Program Director of Aggie ACHIEVE, says, “I can’t wait to see where [Anna] goes in life because I know she is just going to be at the very top. I think we’re all going to know her name.” 

Tags: Charles Butt Scholars Raising Texas Teachers SPED
Categories: Leadership

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