Nearly two years after Eliza Schaaf was asked to stop attending a course at Southern Oregon University, she's finally heading back to class.
The 22-year-old Ashland High School grad, who has Down syndrome, is in her first week of classes as a student at Highline Community College in Des Moines, Wash.
Schaaf, who has a passion for art, had been taking a ceramics class as a non-admitted student at SOU in fall 2010, when she was unexpectedly told by the university that she would no longer be allowed to attend.
University officials said Schaaf required too much one-on-one attention and supervision in class, limiting the instructor's ability to interact with the rest of the students.
Schaaf's family was shocked at the decision.
"It was hard for me to wrap my head around how blankly they just said 'no,' " said Deb Evans, Schaaf's mother. "I've never hit a wall like that."
The family and a handful of student supporters from SOU protested the decision, asking that Schaaf be reinstated, but the university held its ground.
Since leaving SOU, Schaaf has had a whirlwind of adventures, from speaking publicly about her journey at regional events, to living in her own apartment and riding the bus by herself, to being the subject of a California college student's documentary on inclusion.
But all along what Schaaf has really wanted was to return to college, Evans said.
"All she's really wanted is just to learn," said Evans, who started touring colleges with her daughter over the last year, searching for a program that would be happy to accept her.
Though some of Schaaf's top choices for schools were on the East Coast, she ended up choosing a program outside of Seattle, a little closer to home.
As part of the Achieve program at Highline Community College, which resumed classes Monday, Schaaf will take part in introductory courses with other developmentally disabled students and be fully integrated into the campus, taking regular courses with her peers.
"They were happy to have her," said Evans, who was in Des Moines Sunday, getting her daughter situated in a new apartment.
Evans said either she or her husband will stay at Schaaf's apartment while she gets settled, but the couple hopes to eventually find a peer helper to live with her.
Schaaf will have the option to audit classes or take them for credit, which she has yet to decide.
The school has a one-year and a two-year program for students with developmental disabilities. Staff work with the students to determine their career aptitude, with the aim of setting students up for competitive employment after completion.
"These students have ideas about what they want to do with their lives," said Evans.
To prepare for her transition living away from home, Schaaf lived in her own Ashland apartment over the summer and learned to take the bus alone for trips to the YMCA or grocery store.
"It's scary, but we've be prepping for this," said Evans. "It's doable, but it takes training."
Evans said that programs like Achieve are becoming more popular across the country, as they provide an opportunity to include students with disabilities, rather than segregate them on campus or not allow them to attend at all.
"We weren't crazy in thinking Eliza could do this," said Evans. "It's happening."
A friend of Schaaf's who also has Down syndrome was recently accepted into a college program and began taking classes in January.
Julianna Faulkner, 27, met Schaaf while living in Ashland, but later moved to Madison, Wis., where her family helped her apply to Edgewood College's Cutting Edge program for students with disabilities.
"We hadn't really thought about college all that much for Julianna," said Janet Vetterli, Faulkner's mom, who learned about Edgewood from Evans. "We didn't think it was a possibility."
Vetterli said her daughter's program is similar to Schaaf's, with Faulkner attending some core classes with other Cutting Edge students and also being integrated into mainstream classes.
"It's something happening all over the country," said Vetterli.
Schaaf began attending a three-week introductory course Monday and will follow it with a one-week course to reflect and synthesize on what she has learned, said Evans.
"She's been talking about this for two years, and she's finally doing it," said Evans, who said as a mother she still harbors some resentment for the way Schaaf was asked to leave SOU in 2010.
"It's been really difficult," she said. "I feel like it's still unresolved."
Despite the lingering frustration, Evans said she is relieved and excited that Schaaf is finally headed back to class.
"We're totally proud," said Evans. "She will just blossom."
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.