SRU’s Rock Life program set for relaunch in fall 2023


Rock Life Q&A

Rock Life, a program at Slippery Rock University for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities, is being relaunched for the fall 2023 semester after the seven-year-old program was restructured.

Feb. 16, 2023

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — There's new life coming to Rock Life, the program at Slippery Rock University for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities. After undergoing an external review last year by independent consultants to consider ways to improve the program, Rock Life will be restructured for the fall 2023 semester with new staff and curriculum.

To explain the changes and what people can expect, Natalie Burick, SRU director of disability services, participated in the following Q&A. Burick's office, the Office of Disability Services, will oversee Rock Life after it was previously housed in the College of Education. The University also hired Zachery Brown, assistant director in the ODS, to help direct the Rock Life program.

Natalie Burick


What is Rock Life and how common are these types of programs?
Burick: The program gives students with intellectual or developmental disabilities, including those with autism spectrum disorder, the opportunity to get a college experience. Although the program is non-degree bearing, the students are participating in campus life and that experience bridges the gap between high school and what's next: gainful employment or having the confidence to live independently.

Rock Life was founded in 2016. SRU was one of the first post-secondary programs like it in Pennsylvania and today there are 19 such programs in state and nearly 300 in the U.S. We are seeing more and more of these programs popping up on college campuses around the country.

Why are they increasing?
Burick: People are seeing the benefits of a college experience. There are other organizations and agencies that offer young adults career training or vocational development programs, but there's tremendous value in being in an inclusive environment on a college campus. In my role leading the Office of Disability Services, I've worked with students from the Rock Life program, and I've seen them grow. They develop vocational and social skills by working on campus, participating in clubs and organizations, doing group work in the classrooms, and making connections with students and faculty.

Why did SRU's program need restructuring?
Burick: As more of these programs gain popularity and best practices are learned, we realized that our program needed to be updated to best serve the students and stay among the best in the country. The most important change was to migrate to a four-year curriculum. This change gives us the ability to include some courses that focus on diversity, financial planning and wellness, in addition to balancing the schedule with courses that fit the interests of individual students.

We also hired Zachery Brown to help direct the program on a full-time basis, whereas previously the director was only part-time or a faculty member on course release.

Lastly, every Rock Life student will now have 10 hours per week of peer coaching from what we call our "college coaches," who are paid students. We plan to add additional staff as the program grows.

How do you hope the program will grow in the coming years?
Burick: We currently have 12 students in the program with four graduating this spring. We already have 10 new students accepted for fall 2023 and we anticipate adding at least two more to give us 20. Projecting the next few years, we could have more than 40 students by fall 2026, but that's dependent on building capacity with incremental increases each year. I'd say our short-term goals are finding students more vocational experiences, especially with on-campus jobs. Although having a job is not a requirement, we'd like all our students to have either volunteer or paid work experience.

Our long-term goals of the program would be to offer more programming as we increase staff, especially with social interactions. The four pillars of our program are academic enrichment, career exploration, health and wellness, and social engagement. We find that the social component is the easiest because many students get involved with clubs and organizations on their own, but we can always offer more.

What attracts people to the Rock Life program?
Burick: SRU's program has been here for seven years and is one of the most affordable in the area. Universities that offer these types of programs charge a fee for the program on top of tuition and room and board, but almost all students receive federal and private funding. For example, the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation provides, on average, $2,500 per student each semester. SRU's program fee for new students next year will be $3,850 per semester, and most of the other programs in the state exceed $5,000. This even attracts students from out of state specifically for the Rock Life program. Another reason is our inclusive class offerings. At other programs, students in the program might stay together as a cohort, but here at SRU, our Rock Life students are taking classes with other matriculating college students.

How does Rock Life benefit the campus community at large?
Burick: This program makes SRU a more inclusive environment and demonstrates our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. There are also benefits for our college coaches, many of whom are special education or recreational therapy majors. Our faculty, staff and students embrace Rock Life students and recognize them as an important part of the campus community.

For more information about Rock Life at SRU, visit the program's webpage or email

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