This year’s ceremony to celebrate the achievements of Auburn University’s students with intellectual disabilities, or EAGLES, included everything from laughter and tears of joy, to standing ovations and surprise scholarships and endowments.
Held May 6 at the Auburn Alumni Association headquarters on College Street, the 2022 awards luncheon was a festive and well-attended affair that had something for everyone, including fun, food and even a visit from Aubie himself. The ceremony served as an upbeat end to a banner year for the EAGLES program, which is part of the Department of Special Education, Rehabilitation and Counseling, or SERC, in the College of Education.
Luncheon attendees included former Auburn Board of Trustees member Sarah Newton, all nine EAGLES who participated in commencement after completing two- or four-year certifications, other EAGLES students and their families, campus partners and staff. Bradley Basden, Josh Greiner and Anna Moates—who established the program’s first cohort four years ago—were honored for completing the four-year experience, while Grace Davis, Andrew Day, Rosa Juan, D’Vonte Morris, Sadie Weldon and Luke York were celebrated for fulfilling the two-year program.
JoAnne Coggins, chair of the EAGLES Engagement Council, began the day’s remarks by talking about how far the program has come and the unique opportunities it provides all who become involved.
“We are so proud of our program and our staff,” said Coggins, a 1975 Auburn graduate. “To be an advocate for and educate people about a program like this is a great opportunity for us. To the graduates, I would just like to say congratulations for all your hard work, all your persistence, your humor, your guidance and all of the things you’ve been able to teach members of the council and the staff.
“You EAGLES who are graduating and others who are still in the program are going to be the next group of pioneers. You are going to take this program forward and take all that you have learned here to assure that the next generation is going to have much better opportunities than even you have had. Please keep dreaming about what’s coming next.”
College of Education Dean Jeffrey Fairbrother sent along a special video message for the students and celebration attendees.
“Today is a great day for the EAGLES program and the College of Education,” Fairbrother said. “To our graduating and continuing EAGLES students, on behalf of the entire College of Education, please know that we are very proud of you. Today is an opportunity to celebrate all you have accomplished, and it is also an opportunity to set new goals.
“I encourage you all to keep challenging yourselves and continue soaring to new heights.”
The group also was treated to a video from Jay Gogue, who handed over the reins as Auburn University president to Christopher B. Roberts on May 16.
“This is a special day where we get to say thank you and congratulations to our EAGLES students and graduates,” Gogue said. “It’s particularly special because I understand this is the first time we’ve had a four-year cohort that has graduated, and so we’re awfully excited about that graduation and about each of you, each family and what you’ve done.
“A university is about helping people achieve their hopes and dreams, and certainly the EAGLES program plays an important part at Auburn University.”
Awards, accolades abound
Several awards were doled out at the celebration, including the Outstanding EAGLES Student award that went to D’Vonte Morris. Morris was one of six EAGLES students who completed his two-year program at the end of spring semester, and he was all smiles during his acceptance speech.
“I am honored to accept the Student of the Year Award,” said Morris, who also took home the “Most Helpful” honors during the superlatives portion of the day. “In the past two years, I have improved my independence, time management and [ability to] be a wonderful student. I have had the opportunity to work and attend social events, hang out with my friends and have fun along the way.
“Being part of this program has made me realize a lot about myself as an individual. This inclusive education program has given me a new view of the world, and it has made me realize that, if you believe in yourself and put in the work, anything is possible. I hope that I continue to learn and grow so that I can one day live independently in the real world.”
Newton, a longtime EAGLES supporter, received the Legacy Award for her guidance and passion for the program.
“Today is a dream come true for me,” said Newton, who served as a trustee for 14 years. “To the parents, thank you for entrusting us with your most valuable possession—your children. I know it was hard to leave them the first time, so thank you for believing in Auburn. I just want to say thank you to our students.
“It seems just like yesterday that Bradley, Anna and Josh arrived on campus, and I remember that day. You were all very excited but filled with just a little angst. You have completed four years, and it’s amazing. I’m so proud of you. Students, because I believe in you, I believe in Auburn, and I love it. I can’t wait to see what you do when you go out and change the world.”
Erin Greer, a Birmingham native who graduated summa cum laude with a degree in rehabilitation and disability studies, was honored as the outstanding peer mentor from the Warm-hearted Individuals Nurturing Great Success, or WINGS, group that works in tandem with the EAGLES students. Greer will continue her studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she has been accepted into the Doctor of Occupational Therapy program.
“Without a doubt, this was the best part of my college experience,” said Greer, whose adopted brother, Garrett, has Down’s Syndrome. “I wanted to be involved with the EAGLES program so that I could foster new relationships, promote inclusion and independence and understand more about disability within the higher education system. My family adopted Garrett almost eight years ago, and he changed my life forever.
“Inclusivity is rooted deep into my heart and in the hearts of so many others here. I seek to live in a world where disability isn’t seen as an interference to normalcy, but where people are defined based on who they are on the inside rather than by societal labels. I will take all the valuable lessons I learned here in this program and use them to empower more individuals to go after their dreams, just like so many of you have done here.”
Other awards included: Outstanding Employment Partner of the Year—Helen Baggett, Auburn Athletics; Outstanding Residence Life Partner of the Year—Lindsey Sharpe, University Housing; and Outstanding Campus Collaborator of the Year—Lindsey Piazza and Laura Plexico, Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences.
Super surprises galore
Professor Jeff Reese, head of the SERC department, added a curve ball to the program by announcing an array of surprises. Reese delivered the monumental news that the program has received an anonymous gift of more than $3 million that will secure the future of EAGLES for many years to come.
“The donor is addressing immediate needs while providing the program with matching dollars for increased scholarships,” Reese said. “The goal is to create enough scholarships for every EAGLES student. The donor has helped safeguard the future of the program so that each year the program will have additional capital and resources to support students.”
Reese also revealed that Betty Patten, director of the EAGLES program, received the inaugural Jay and Susie Gogue Endowed Directorship for her commitment to taking the EAGLES to new heights. Under her leadership, EAGLES has thrived in its goals of providing a postsecondary education opportunity for students with intellectual disabilities to engage in a two- or four-year campus experience while helping them achieve their employment and independent living goals.
“Under your leadership, EAGLES has flourished in a short time,” Reese said of Patten. “Your passion, your vision and seemingly endless energy—along with your wonderful staff—have transformed the EAGLES into a gold-standard program. EAGLES has become interwoven into the Auburn fabric and in the Auburn Family, and I am so proud of the EAGLES program and that they are housed in our department.”
In his video, Fairbrother echoed Reese’s praise for Patten, an assistant clinical professor of special education who has been involved with the EAGLES program since 2019 after earning her doctorate in special education from Auburn in 2017.
“You have been a fierce advocate for the EAGLES program, successfully expanding your staff and graduate support for students, adding new on-campus and off-campus partnerships to strengthen the program and enrich the student experience and fundraising more than $5 million to help underwrite meal plans, housing and scholarships to help make the program more accessible to all,” Fairbrother said of Patten. “Your work ethic is truly exemplary, and your heart for service and students is inspiring. It is only fitting that Auburn’s first-ever endowed directorship be awarded to a person with your character, integrity and passion.”
While overwhelmed and truly honored, Patten quickly shifted the focus of the event back to the EAGLES and those who laid the groundwork before her.
“I’m so thankful, but don’t want this to overshadow the EAGLES,” Patten said. “You are why we are here today, and I am so thankful to be a part of your journey. I’m excited for all that has happened and all that is to come. I truly feel the best is yet to come for the future of our graduates and this program.
“We choose to take this program in a direction that doesn’t just benefit people individually, but holistically in a way that is not only filled with excellence but is sustainable so that more people have this opportunity. Before you know it, this will just be something that exists everywhere and won’t be celebrated in the sense that it’s remarkable, because you all are already remarkable individuals who deserve to be a part of every conversation and have a seat at every table. You are changing the way, and I’m so excited.”
Patten then announced a surprise of her own, the establishment of a scholarship named in honor of one of the EAGLES’ founders, retiring SERC Professor Karen Rabren. Rabren, the Mildred Cheshire Fraley Distinguished Professor, received the Pioneer Award and was shocked to discover her legacy will live on forever in the form of the Karen S. Rabren Endowed Scholarship.
“After a lifetime of work in the field of special education and transition, she has dedicated her life to service,” Patten said of her mentor. “She has invested her time, energy and resources in addition to all she has done for students with disabilities. She has provided transformational change, not just in her family, but in her community, here at Auburn University and for every single EAGLES student and their families.
“She has integrity, lives her life with purpose and does everything with excellence. Dr. Rabren has had a long journey in the field of special education and transition, and she also has endured a lot of challenges to help make sure this program was safeguarded over the years.”
Onward and upward
The festivities included an official welcome for the graduating EAGLES and WINGS peer mentors into the Auburn Alumni Association family by Danielle Fields of the Auburn Office of Advancement. Fields announced the creation of an EAGLES and WINGS Auburn Affiliate group that will help with scholarship fundraising and outreach efforts.
“Often times, when you think about graduation, you think about goodbyes, but at the Auburn Alumni Association, we really view graduation as the beginning of a new chapter,” Fields said. “We welcome you into the family and want to make sure you have opportunities to take Auburn with you and stay connected with the university that gave you so many great memories. We want to ensure that you take a piece of Auburn with you wherever you go when you graduate, so we are working diligently to develop this affiliate group that will be impactful and inclusive of your time, your talents and your treasures.”
Stacy Greiner-Farmer, the mother of EAGLES four-year graduate Josh Greiner, offered the parents’ perspective and capped the day’s remarks with thank-yous and advice.
“Four years ago, they started as EAGLES students at Auburn University. Now, they are Auburn students who happen to be in the EAGLES program,” Greiner-Farmer said of the program’s first cohort. “You are all a true representation of Auburn, the Auburn Creed and the EAGLES program, and I’m proud to know that this program continues to have smart, thoughtful and amazing people to carry on the legacy. To all the graduates—continue to be lifelong learners, continue to put into practice all the Auburn experience and EAGLES has taught you, live by the creed, immerse yourselves into all things Auburn and roll Toomer’s every chance you get.
To the parents, my advice to you is to enjoy every minute, support and guide, do not control, go to the tailgate, go to Toomer’s, grocery shop and attend a gymnastics meet. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
Greiner-Farmer closed with thoughts about what the program and Auburn has meant to her and her son.
“This is a gift that at one time was not an option,” she said. “It has meant opportunity, quality of education, friendships to last a lifetime and recognition for ability. It has meant that Auburn has a culture that is inclusive. It means that our son can walk across a graduation stage along with his peers and celebrate this rite of passage.
“It means that, when Coach Bruce Pearl deemed Auburn the ‘everything school,’ that ‘everything school’ included the EAGLES. I understand that Auburn Family is forever.”