As frantic and stressed-out students barged into the All Knight Study by the CFE Arena on a Monday afternoon, they slowed down with a warm welcome and shining smile belonging to employee Ana Lauren Gasparini.
The University of Central Florida, which frequently prides itself on standing for opportunity, recently initiated a new program called Inclusive Education Services. Ana was one of six inaugural IES students in fall of 2015. Students who wish to apply for IES must have a documented intellectual disability, exited the K-12 system, and most importantly, a desire to learn, according to accessibility consultant Lauren Bubis.
Ana, who was born with Down syndrome, has successfully been immersed in UCF’s community. She is currently enrolled in all-inclusive self-defense and career planning courses, lives in student housing and has an on-campus job at the Student Union. Working on campus is one of Ana’s beloved opportunities of being a Knight.
“It makes me feel like I’m wanted,” she said. “I want Mr. Adams to know I thank you for believing in me and giving me a chance.”
Matthew Adams, the Student Union facility specialist and Ana’s boss, believes that other Student Union employees have benefited greatly from working with her.
“She’s humble, eager to learn and wants so badly to be a part of our community,” Adams said. “It really inspires others to take some of the work opportunities they may have missed. She’s so excited about it that she makes others excited about it.”
While the opportunity to work on campus is often taken for granted, Gasparini holds it close to her heart. It has impacted her in more ways than one, as she has struggled with feeling wanted in the past.
Her education has not always taken place in an inclusive community. Back in elementary school, she came across two boys who would constantly bully her.
“The two boys pushed me and bullied me around. They made me feel like I couldn’t start my heart,” Ana said. “I guess they were scared of me because I was different.”
As she made her way through grade school, she began to experience an increasing amount of support and acceptance from the community around her. While she now has many friends and supporters across UCF’s community, her biggest supporters have always been her family.
“My parents have always been very supportive. They said I was an easy child, and I didn’t get in trouble all the time like my sister does,” Ana spoke with a grin from ear to ear.
Ana’s father, Joe, shares a special bond with his daughter.
“She’s my buddy, my friend and my pal. We are just terribly proud of her,” Joe said with immense pride in his voice. “She’s also an inspiration to her younger sister, Molly, who’s in medical school right now, to make the most of the opportunities she has. Her big sister has taught her that.”
Seeing as IES is a three-year program, Ana is halfway through and will focus more on her career after college for the duration of the program.
For years, Ana has had her sights set on Hollywood and aspires to become an actress and model. After recently visiting Los Angeles and feeling its aura, her dreams have been cemented. In order to achieve her goal, she is considering taking some theater classes in her last year.
With firm confidence in her voice, Ana said she won’t let anything get in her way.
“I believe anything is possible,” Ana said. “I just do.”