GCU's LOPES Academy pursues sustained success

Recent LOPES Academy grads Kyle Bragelman (left) and Jaden Lowery work at the Lope Shop.

Photos by Ralph Freso

After proudly watching two students of Grand Canyon University’s LOPES Academy earn paid, on-campus employment, Program Manager Allison Mancinelli Kolanko knows the toughest part awaits.

“Obtaining a job isn’t always the hardest step,” she said. “It’s 'how do you maintain employment?'”

Kyle Bragelman and Jaden Lowery started their new jobs earlier this summer at campus retailer the Lope Shop.

Mancinelli Kolanko will remain in contact with Lope Shop Operations Manager Garrett Miller to ensure that Bragelman and Lowery, among the first to complete the two-year LOPES Academy program for neurodiverse individuals, are using workforce skills effectively in an environment that supports continued growth and independence.

Mancinelli Kolanko frequently stresses the value of “intrinsic motivation” as a foundation for success. That’s just part of her duties to sustain the success of a program entering its third season this fall under the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. It has provided students with an opportunity to experience college life in the nondegree program, culminating in an internship for their final semester.

LOPES Academy Program Manager Allison Mancinelli Kolanko (left) helps the first cohort of students in the program prepare their resumes earlier this year.

“There's so many important pieces to the program,” said Mancinelli Kolanko.

She appreciates the collaboration the academy has received from GCU's nine colleges in supporting the initiative, created in partnership with Don and Kim Cardon, whose daughter, Emma, completed the program this spring.

The LOPES Academy has become so popular that it has swelled enough to fill 2 ½ future cohorts, Mancinelli Kolanko said. But enrollment for the 2023 fall semester will remain at around one dozen students, with plans in the works for early acceptance for the 2024 fall semester.

Classes won’t resume until September, but Mancinelli Kolanko is thinking ahead. She and Program Coordinator Courtney Patton observed operations during the first week of the opening of Havoc House, the latest on-campus restaurant located next to GGU Arena, in the event an internship for a LOPES Academy student becomes a possibility.

One day later, they chatted with the general manager of the Grand Canyon Beverage Company (GCBC).

Lowery bags items at the Lope Shop.

“It’s just expanding our network and raising awareness of neurodiversity and employment,” said Mancinelli Kolanko, who has previous experience working with K-12 public school students, developing a job-coaching culinary academy, and job coaching throughout the Valley. “Really, it’s all about providing training and a chance for them. By raising awareness with individualized supports in place, employment is that much more successful."

Mancinelli Kolanko’s homework on her pupils is important to their development, especially when employers consider adding more tasks as part of their internships or paid employment.

“I'll gauge the day-to-day (duties), but I will definitely use Allison as a resource very often,” Miller said. “I like to run things past Allison, saying, ‘Hey, do you think we are ready to move on to the next step?’ That is what we'll do eventually when we teach them (how to use) registers and a lot more back-end side of things more than they did with their internships.”

Bragelman folds new GCU logo T-shirts.

The Lope Shop was perceived as an initial placement for LOPES Academy alumni in paid, on-campus jobs. But expanding those options off campus is a possibility. Mancinelli Kolanko said GCU was the first university to pursue an internship with Sodexo, a food and facilities management company, and she hopes that partnership can expand.

“I think this is just laying the foundation for years to come,” Mancinelli Kolanko said of the partnership between LOPES Academy and Lope Shop. "We've been reaching out to other (companies). We want to maintain relationships and spread our resources here on campus. We've been meeting with other departments, too, to kind of now infiltrate into that.”

Mancinelli Kolanko also hopes to reach an agreement with Walgreens stores, which could provide a more accommodating geographic alternative. Many who participated in the LOPES Academy commuted from various parts of the Valley with the aid of their parents. Striking an agreement with employers closer to their homes would reduce travel time — an extremely attractive perk in the wake of the Valley's growing traffic.

This summer, she has maintained a “soft touch” with the LOPES Academy alumni and their parents. That involves updating their resumes to include their internships and making sure they maintain motivation to meet individual employment goals.

One alumna who won’t need any motivation is Lindsey Eaton, who is working at Christ Lutheran School as an office assistant. Eaton served her GCU internship as an assistant in the Athletic Department.

Said Mancinelli Kolanko, “The internship is part of the program. As far as employment, we look to support that to the greatest extent possible."

Senior writer Mark Gonzales can be reached at [email protected]

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