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Creating opportunities for autism students in Richmond

VCU SOE emerging scholar connects research with policy advocacy

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Holly Whittenburg

VCU's Rehabilitation Research and Training Center (RRTC) and Research to Policy Advocacy are just a few organizations that VCU School of Education student Holly Whittenburg has been involved with this past year as an emerging scholar.

Whittenburg is a third-year, part-time, Ph.D. student in the special education and disability leadership track. Her research interests are focused on work-based interventions for transition-aged students with autism.

Whittenburg worked with RRTC and VCU’s Autism Center for Excellence (ACE) when she was a special education coordinator with Hampton City Schools.

“When I saw all the innovative and amazing things that the center [RRTC] was doing, I knew that I wanted to be a part of it,” said Whittenburg.

Whittenburg and Hampton City Schools partnered with RRTC and ACE on a services improvement plan for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the district. When reflecting on her time working with the centers, Whittenburg’s passion for helping students with ASD was clear.

"I love being involved in cutting-edge research that directly improves employment outcomes for young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

“I love being involved in cutting-edge research that directly improves employment outcomes for young adults with ASD, and that’s transforming how schools and vocational rehabilitation agencies prepare students with significant disabilities for work,” she said.

Whittenburg is also a Research to Policy Advocacy (RTPA) scholar. RTPA is an Office of Special Education Programs grant-funded initiative through the School of Education that helps support and train doctoral students who are interested in connecting special education research and policy advocacy.

“I participate in monthly seminars that help me ‘dive deeper’ into current policy questions and issues,” said Whittenburg.

The relationship with RTPA later led Whittenburg to an opportunity this past summer to attend an intensive, one-week course in Washington, D.C. that focused on special education policy advocacy.

When reflecting on her time at the School of Education so far, Whittenburg gives credit to the school for all of the research opportunities she has been given.

“There are so many amazing research opportunities occurring within the school and its centers. My favorite part [about the VCU SOE] is having had the chance to work on different research and writing projects with multiple faculty members. Those opportunities have greatly influenced my path as an emerging scholar,” she said.