Blugold is championing special education while nurturing passion for theater

| Judy Berthiaume

While she doesn’t know exactly what her future holds, UW-Eau Claire senior Clarissa Cleven-Peterson hopes it will include a lot of time both in classrooms and on stages.

A special education major and a theatre education minor, Clarissa wants to combine her passions for special education and theater in ways that will help her create learning opportunities for youth who need additional support.

In the special education program, Clarissa is pursuing all three licensures: emotional behavior disorders, intellectual disabilities and learning disabilities. She also has a certificate in American Sign Language.

Her dream job is to teach students with emotional behavior disorders who attend a school in a lower-income school district. Her plan is to include theater in her teaching curriculum as a way to teach social and life skills.

A summer study abroad program in Scotland gave the Chippewa Falls native a glimpse of what it might be like to bring special education and theater together in a school setting.

The real-world experience in Scotland left Clarissa even more excited for her future and even more confident that she can combine her passions to make positive change in the world.

As the spring 2016 semester gets underway, Clarissa took a few minutes to talk about how her many experiences as a Blugold are preparing her for future success in the education field.

What inspired you to be a SPED major?

I’ve always had a passion for education and have always known that I wanted to be a teacher, but I was unsure what or who I wanted to teach. I actually came to college as an elementary education major, but I knew that wasn't exactly what I wanted to do.

I believe that every individual should receive a quality education, regardless of if they have a disability or not. I realized after my first semester of college that I wanted to pursue my belief and do something like what I did in high school, when I was an aide in a life skills classroom.

I enjoy working with students with additional support needs because I can create a positive learning opportunity for them and be their advocate.

Tell us about studying abroad through the SPED in Scotland program.

It was my first time out of the country and I had an amazing time being abroad. Our group became a family.

Through the program, I stayed with a host family for two weeks and worked in a residential school for students with disabilities. During my placement, I helped with the school play, which was a version of “A Midsummer Night's Dream.”

My placement let me combine my interests, which are special education and theater. It was a fantastic experience for me.

I also studied at the University of Aberdeen, where we learned about emotional behavior disorders from Dr. Rose Battalio, a professor of special education at UW-Eau Claire.

In Scotland, we had guest lecturers come in to discuss how Scotland teaches future educators and what Scotland does for individuals with additional support needs. I realized that I have more training in special education than many teachers in Scotland because they don't have a special education major.

The last week of our program, our group went on a Scotland Highlands tour where we learned about the history and some of the legends about Scotland. We went hiking and went to famous landmarks, including looking for Nessie in Loch Ness and seeing the Glenfinnan Viaduct, which is more commonly known as the Harry Potter Bridge. Being a huge Harry Potter fan, it was awesome to be able to see that in real life.

How important was it to you to have an international experience during college?

One thing that I wanted to do during my college career was to study abroad. And by going in the summer, I could stick to my degree plan.

One of the reasons that I choose UWEC — along with the Blugold Marching Band — was the fact that one in four students study abroad.

Studying abroad allowed me to realize there is a whole world of opportunities available to me.

What experiences have you had outside of SPED that have enhanced your college experience?

Being involved in housing has been a continuous part of my college career. I’ve lived in Oak Ridge Hall my whole college career; it is my home away from home.

My involvement in housing started early my freshman year. I regularly attended my hall council and ended up being elected as a delegate for the Residence Hall Association. Initially I had no idea what it was or what I would be doing, but I was very eager to get involved.

I enjoyed RHA so much that my sophomore year I was elected to be on the RHA executive board as the Multicultural Experiences chair.

My sophomore year, I also was on a conference staff as the entertainment chair for the National Association for College and University Residence Halls conference that was held at UW-Eau Claire during the summer of 2014. NACURH is an international housing conference so we hosted 2,300 people who are interested and involved in housing.

My junior year I became a residence assistant and I was the communications coordinator for National Residence Hall Honorary, where I also was a student representative for housing.

Last year, I received the Excellence Award for Housing and Residence Life.

I’m currently in my second year as an RA, and I’m the president of National Residence Hall Honorary.

I also continue to go to housing conferences to further develop my leadership and networking skills.

What did you gain from your experiences in housing?

I don't know if I can ever describe everything that I have learned as an RA.

I’ve learned how to be a leader. I have learned time management and conflict and resolution skills, and everything in between.

All of these skills will be and currently are applicable to really everything that I do as a student and in my personal life, and they will be important in my future career.

How else have you immersed yourself in the campus community?

I’ve been in Blugold Marching Band for all of my college career as a piccolo player, and I’ve been a Campus Ambassador for the past two years.

I was an orientation assistant, and I’ve worked as an intern in the Dean of Students office.

All of those experiences have made my time at UW-Eau Claire even better.

Photo caption: Clarissa Cleven-Peterson in Scotland