UAlbany, Special Olympics New York Team Up to Advance Campus Inclusivity

UAlbany students and Special Olympics athletes gather in front of a goal at Dutch Turf during a soccer league game.
A Unified soccer league meets at Dutch Turf on Wednesday nights this semester. (Photo by Mike Nolan)

ALBANY, N.Y. (April 26, 2022) – Corey Nilon believes in the power of sports to bring people together from different backgrounds and advance the University at Albany’s mission of campus inclusivity.

Nilon, a junior Biology major, is the president of UAlbany’s Special Olympics Club, made up of students who are passionate about working with leaders of the Special Olympics, the largest national sports organization for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The club is now in its fifth year and supports Special Olympics New York on fundraising and advocacy efforts.

“My first involvement with the Special Olympics was in high school and I wanted to find a way to build on my volunteer work there through UAlbany,” said Nilon, who has led the Special Olympics Club on campus for the last two years. “It’s really rewarding, being able to directly interact with the athletes and hear their stories. Sports has a unique way of bringing us all together.”

A Unified Campus 

UAlbany students and Special Olympics athletes compete in a soccer match under the lights at Dutch Turf.
A variety of Unified Sports leagues have been offered on campus over the last four years. (Photo by Charlie Bernet)

Along with its traditional competitions, the Special Olympics offers Unified Sports leagues where athletes with and without disabilities compete together. Most unified programming is hosted by K-12 schools, but several college campuses host them as well, including UAlbany.

A partnership between UAlbany’s Special Olympics Club, the Office of Campus Recreation (Campus Rec) and Special Olympics New York, a variety of Unified Sports leagues have been hosted on campus over the last four years.

The programing was initially tested through one- and two-day campus tournaments. It has since grown to full-on league competition in sports including flag football, soccer, basketball and tennis.

Leagues are made up of around 10 to 15 athletes recruited from within the Capital Region Special Olympics community. The athletes are paired with UAlbany students through a combine-style assessment day to create equal, competitive teams. Each league runs for six weeks long with a champion crowned at the end of the season, following Special Olympics International rules.

Jonathan Louie, Campus Rec’s assistant director of competitive sports, has managed the leagues since joining UAlbany in 2019. He works closely with the UAlbany Special Olympics Club, through Nilon, and Nathan Johnson, the executive director of Unified Sports for Special Olympics New York.

“All the credit for getting this off the ground goes to my associate director Craig Brewer, our partners at Special Olympics New York and students of the UAlbany Special Olympics Club. I’ve taken what they started and ran with it,” he said.

“By offering unified sports on campus, we are not only advancing the University’s diversity and inclusion goals, but also broadening student interactions and uniting people from all different walks of life. It’s a great atmosphere. Everyone cheers each other and enjoys the friendly, inclusive competition.”

Inclusive Learning 

UAlbany student interns stand together to form the Special Olympics logo.
UAlbany Special Olympics New York interns: Blossom Peter, Marisa Tonelli and Victoria Barbarino. (Photo by Francklyn Dacruz)

Outside of competition, Special Olympics New York also partners with UAlbany on an inclusive classroom initiative. Athletes are invited to participate in a six-week program to learn about career skills such as how to dress for success, speech writing and public speaking. The initiative is run by student leaders at Albany Business Leaders Emerging (ABLE) and the Albany Sports Business Organization. It is set to return to campus in spring 2023 after a brief hiatus due to the pandemic.

“I think this partnership is beneficial not only for the New York Special Olympics and ABLE, but the entire UAlbany community,” said Kyle McCarey, a senior in the Financial Analyst Honors Program and ABLE community service president. “Even though I am graduating, I look forward to seeing what our organizations will achieve working together next year to create a more inclusive campus.”

Several students in the School of Education’s Human Development internship program, which requires 135 on-site hours for credit, have also worked virtually with Ryan Miler, Special Olympics New York’s senior director of program, to advance the organization’s Young Athletes program for local schools.

The partnership started virtually during the Spring 2020 semester and is offered to around five students each semester. Victoria Barbarino, a senior Human Development and Sociology major, is among the current student cohort.

“I’ve been a member of the UAlbany Special Olympics Club for about a year now, and wish I knew about it earlier,” said Barbarino, who aspires to be a teacher. “It really is such a fun club and promotes an important message of inclusivity.”

“My biggest goal right now is to make playing sports as inclusive as possible on campus and spread the word about our club,” added Nilon. “We want to build a foundation for the next generation of student leaders.”

Students interested in the UAlbany Special Olympics Club can connect through My Involvement and also follow the club on Instagram.