A University of Central Florida alumna and one of the nation’s foremost experts in transition education for youth with disabilities will lead the new Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities housed at UCF.

Paula D. Kohler was named the center’s first executive director after a national search. She currently serves as associate vice president of Research and professor in the Special Education Program at Western Michigan University. Kohler will begin her new job on Sept. 6.

“We are thrilled to have Dr. Kohler join UCF and help build this center to support children and their families throughout the state,” said Pamela “Sissi” Carroll, dean of UCF’s College of Education and Human Performance. “Under Dr. Kohler’s leadership and the talents of our extraordinary team, we will transform how Florida institutions provide postsecondary education and career pathways for students with unique abilities.”

The Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities was signed into law earlier this year, championed by Senate President Andy Gardiner, whose 12-year-old son, Andrew, has Down syndrome.

Although the center will be housed at UCF, it will serve the entire state, providing parents of students with intellectual disabilities with information about college programs and opportunities across Florida. The center also will offer financial support for students with intellectual disabilities to earn degrees or certificates and enter the workforce.

“This is an amazing opportunity for us to expand options and improve outcomes for students with intellectual disabilities,” Kohler said. “I wanted to be a part of this important initiative that is poised to serve as a model for other states across the U.S.”

Kohler is looking forward to returning to Florida – and to UCF – where she earned her master’s degree in Educational Leadership. Now a national leader in transition programs for youth with intellectual disabilities, she has spent the past 26 years conducting research focused on preparing youth with disabilities for college and careers. Kohler’s work has influenced transition programs in multiple states, including New Mexico, New York and California.

Kohler also served on the faculty in Special Education at Western Michigan and as a senior research associate with the Transition Research Institute at the University of Illinois. She earned her doctorate in Special Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

At UCF, Kohler will be responsible for distributing $3.5 million in scholarships to students attending higher education institutions across the state and another $3 million in grants to develop new programs. She also will serve as a professor in Exceptional Education and evaluate programs’ impacts on students’ academic and emotional growth, as well as career preparation and employment.

That includes students in UCF’s new Inclusive Education Services initiative, which provides students with intellectual disabilities the chance to attend college, live on campus and participate in work-study opportunities. The program was successfully piloted last year with 10 students and is one of the most fully integrated in the nation.

Just last week, a video from one of the students accepted into the program for fall had been viewed 165,000 times with well wishes from across the country.

“We began with the belief that our inclusion program meant full inclusion,” said Rebecca Hines, an associate professor who has served as the center’s interim director and helped develop the inclusive education initiative. “We created something that isn’t a group of people with intellectual disabilities walking around in a cluster, but individuals with intellectual challenges throughout the university who are supported just like their peers.”