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There’s Room for All

Ph.D. graduate Lisa Paulson (‘24) has built an inclusive recreation club environment on campus and wants to see the momentum continue 

As Lisa Paulson gets ready to receive her doctorate in Physical Education and Physical Activity Leadership in the College of Natural and Health Sciences this spring, she has many accomplishments to look back on and celebrate during her time at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC).

Paulson conducted research on physical education stakeholders' policy work in the United States, addressing misunderstandings of policy and the lack of training. She also earned first place in a research poster competition last year. But what Paulson is truly proud of is being part of something significant – enacting cultural change on UNC's campus to be more inclusive.

Three years ago, when she first arrived at UNC, Paulson saw something that piqued her interest. She noticed a Unified Schools banner hanging in the Campus Recreation Center, which signifies the university has a club that provides opportunities for students with and without disabilities to engage in activities together.

“I knew I wanted to be a part of that,” Paulson said. “I assumed things with the program would be up and running, but it turned out the club had been wiped away by the COVID-19 pandemic. So, we were starting from scratch with $0 in the bank account.”

Paulson and two student leaders made it their goal to resurrect the club, calling it UNCO Unified. The club stems from the Unified Movement in partnership with Special Olympics. According to their website, it was created to combat the issue that people with disabilities didn't always have the chance to play on their school’s sports teams. The club helps people break stereotypes and empowers people on the team to try something they may not otherwise have the chance to do.

Paulson says it is becoming more common to see Unified Sports at the kindergarten through 12th grade levels, but less so in a college setting since many universities don’t have inclusive higher education programs or clubs.

“I’ve seen how beautiful [Unified] is and the difference it can make in the culture, but I’ve never seen it happen as much as I have on UNC’s campus,” Paulson said.

The club has seen tremendous growth, starting with 0 members and growing to 60 in just three years. The first sport the members took on was basketball, and there were skills that needed to be taught. But now, they compete in tournaments and win many games throughout the seasons.

“Everyone that’s played, we’ve had a really good dynamic from the very start.” said Josh Low, UNC junior and Unified athlete. “It’s been fun to see how the friendships grew throughout the season, even through the competitiveness.”

This year, the club added flag football to the roster to cater to athletes who may not like basketball. Paulson says they plan to continue adding other sports in the future.

“We’re leaning toward bowling because it’s a little bit more social,” Paulson said. “We really want the club to not just focus so much on sports, but also provide other opportunities to members if sports aren’t their jam. I think just providing a safe and secure planned social outlet is a unique opportunity that maybe they don’t get within their academic support.”

UNCO Unified also hosts craft nights, holiday parties and other events to include those who aren’t interested in athletics, but still want to connect with others. Everyone in the community is invited to attend the events.

During the school year, Unified partnered with the Arc of Weld County, an advocacy organization that helps promote the rights and independence of those with intellectual or developmental disabilities in the county and surrounding counties. Many of the athletes who have disabilities come from the Arc along with UNC students from the Go On And Learn (GOAL) Program.

“It’s been really great to have that partnership with the community and make a bigger impact outside of campus,” Paulson said.

Unified has been a conduit for many of its members to explore new things, get out of their comfort zone and even create lifelong relationships.

“Everyone on my team is my best friend because [we] connect together,” said Xavier Secrest, one of the athletes on the Unified basketball team.

Many of the members socialize outside of the club. As a group, they go to the Campus Recreation Center to lift weights in the mornings, eat lunch with one another at the dining hall, walk around campus together or go off campus to participate in activities they wouldn’t have known about if they hadn’t met other people through the club.

“A lot of times, the partners — the students without disabilities — sign up for Unified Club because they think they’re going to do something good and are doing a service,” Paulson said. “But what ends up happening is [the partners] always get more out of it than what they’re giving to the athletes. They build relationships and friendships they didn’t think were going to exist outside of the club hours they showed up for. They realize how beautiful it is to have everyone included. I’ve seen the culture grow, and I hope it continues.”

Throughout her time with UNCO Unified, Paulson capitalized on the knowledge and expertise she gained in her doctoral program. She worked with undergraduate students on the importance of adding Unified sports to their future physical education curriculums and recruited Physical Education students to join Unified to make club membership more diverse. Looking to the future, Paulson has collaborated with the P.E. Club and the Kinesiology, Nutrition and Dietetics (KiND) program to ensure Unified continues and is sustainable after she graduates this semester.

“Students can help by keeping an open mind, being supportive and learning how to help others or be inclusive,” Paulson said. “Along with listening to what other people need and make them feel seen, celebrated and heard.”

Recently, the Unified Club participated in the Windsor Polar Plunge, raising $2,200 for Special Olympics Colorado. Even though UNC's club soccer and ultimate frisbee teams joined the club at the plunge, all the money raised by the two clubs went to Unified to help fund additional opportunities for its members.

With the club expanding in membership, funding and activities, Paulson hopes the connections, relationships and memories continue to grow after she graduates.

"It is just so beautiful to see students, especially young adults, embrace inclusion - one of UNC's priorities,” Paulson said. “I'd like to continue to spread the word and keep the momentum going, as there is room for all and everyone deserves to feel valued, included and celebrated.”

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