New faculty member joins Augie Access as director of accessibility and academic support

Jeff Merkle is a new faculty member at Augustana this year. As the new director of accessibility and academic support, he splits his time between finding internships for Augie Access students and providing support for students with both long-term and short-term disabilities.

The Augie Access program is in its seventh year of activity. The program provides an opportunity for students with a documented diagnosis of an intellectual or developmental disability to attend a postsecondary institution. It is designed for these students to have better employment outcomes.

One of the main components of the program includes three semesters of internship work for each student, which Merkle coordinates. 

“It begins with interviews with the students, finding their likes, finding their dislikes, finding what they’ve done in the past, what employment they’ve enjoyed,” he said.

Next, Merkle makes calls to different programs and businesses in the city to find possible opportunities for the students. In the past, some students have been placed with a business that restores video games, and others have been placed at the Sanford Premier Center. Several interns will be placed in the Great Plains Zoo this year.

Merkle’s other main responsibility at Augustana is providing accessibility for students with disabilities.

“It is a very interactive, student-driven process,” he said. “An incoming student who has had a 504 plan or an IEP in high school would come to school, disclose that they have had those supports in the past, and we will have a conversation.”

Merkle works with the student, the student’s medical professional and the student’s professors to best provide accessibility for what they need in order to find success at the college.

“There’s all matter of accommodations because there’s all manner of disabling conditions,” Merkle said. “It’s very individualized for the student.”

Some accommodations are more common than others, such as allowing for extended time on tests, an alternate location for taking exams, access to slides in larger print, preferential seating and a note-taker.

The office works with students who have temporary disabling conditions as well. For example, if a student has surgery for a broken hand and needs someone to take notes for them, Merkle could help coordinate this.

As he continues his work for Augustana, Merkle’s main goal for the future is to create more efficient methods in the accessibility office. He would like to improve current systems through the use of technology. Electronic filing for the office, online administration improvements and smart pens for student note-taking accommodations are some ways in which he would like to utilize technology in the future for his department.

When Merkle is not working with Augustana Access and coordinating accessibility resources, he spends time with his wife and kids. He also enjoys fishing and is looking forward to his future at Augustana, though he has had a relationship with the college throughout his entire life. 

Merkle’s parents met during their freshman year at the school, and his wife was the hall director at Bergsaker when the two got married. Merkle and his wife had their first child while living in the dorm, so their first-born lived in Bergsaker for the first year of her life.

The Merkle family moved to Iowa and lived there for about two decades. Later, when Merkle’s first child went to college, she chose to study at Augustana and lived in Bergsaker again as an 18-year-old. 

Eventually, the whole family migrated to the Sioux Falls area, and Merkle saw a job opening here and decided to apply. He feels that his life has come full circle and is pleased to be part of the Augustana community again, this time as a faculty member.

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