Q&A: Dawn Allen

As director of BUILD, Dawn Allen wears a lot of hats. She coordinates the academic and co-curricular activities of a group of students whose presence has transformed Bethel’s campus in the best possible way. She shares what she loves about Bethel and what it's been like creating a new kind of "typical" day for her students this spring.

By Monique Kleinhuizen ’08, GS’16, new media strategist

April 09, 2020 | 8:15 a.m.

Dawn Allen, Director of BUILD

Dawn Allen, Director of BUILD

Dawn Allen wears a lot of hats. As director of BUILD, she’s involved in the comings and goings of about 30 remarkable students who call Bethel home. And this spring, as Bethel moves to a virtual learning environment in the wake of COVID-19, that role has brought some extra challenges.

BUILD is a 2-year postsecondary, residential program that provides academic, vocational, residential, and social learning experiences to students with intellectual disabilities. It’s one of only a handful of Christ-centered programs of its kind in the United States, making it a unique opportunity for young adults with special needs. And its presence, by design, also impacts the wider Bethel community in profound ways. We sat down with Dawn to find out what it’s like to sit at the helm of such a unique program right now, and here’s what she had to say: 

What brought you to Bethel, and what do you love most about this community?

What I most love about Bethel is that it truly is a community. I came here first as a college student to visit one of my best friends (who also happens to work at Bethel now) and immediately noticed that Bethel’s community has a richness like no other. People here have such a heart for Jesus and a heart for others, and I often find myself noticing “only at Bethel” moments. Recently I was walking to my office carrying heavy boxes, and a student came up beside me and asked if he could help. He took some boxes and walked with me to my office. When he left, he went the complete opposite direction that I had been walking; it was only his desire to help that had brought him my way. It is hard to fully put into words the genuine care of this community. Here we celebrate the beauty of the diversity of the body of Christ by being inclusive, lifting one another up, and working together to honor God in all that we do.

How would you describe BUILD to someone who’s not familiar with it?

The BUILD Program is a full college experience for students with intellectual disabilities. Students live on campus in traditional residence halls, are involved in traditional college classes, live a traditional college lifestyle⁠—they do their own laundry, make their own schedules, etc.—and can join any clubs or campus activities that they are interested in. We have even had one student get an appeal approved by the NCAA to participate in Bethel’s cross-country and track teams! We have been designated as a Comprehensive Transition Program by the Federal Department of Education. Some important aspects of this designation are that the program is designed to support students with intellectual disabilities in preparation for employment, has an advising and curriculum structure, and provides at least 50 percent of the program time in academics (college courses for credit or for audit, or internships) with other students without intellectual disabilities.

Even now, in the midst of COVID-19, students still engage with mentors and complete coursework via video chats, they take part in virtual social events, and complete as many program activities as possible, even though they're doing it from afar. Here's a video we created recently that shows what a student's day usually looks like in the BUILD program:

How has Bethel been a leader in education for students with special needs?

Bethel was the first, and is still the only, four-year university in Minnesota to offer a program like BUILD. We also are still one of only 56 Comprehensive Transition Programs nationwide to offer both an integrated residential experience as part of the program as well as financial aid. That number drops even more if you look at private Christian schools that have this type of program. We are also beginning to share our knowledge with the world through research coming out of Bethel that shows the impact of the BUILD program on students’ quality of life indicators and the impact of the BUILD program on the broader Bethel community. Although I have to give a bit of a spoiler alert on the research itself, I can tell you that God is doing amazing things here at Bethel⁠—through the BUILD program⁠—and this research is helping to inspire others internationally. 

What is a day like in your role?

My days are quite full, but I have a nice balance of connecting with others through meetings, checking in on students, and getting the administrative part of my work done. I love that this role gives me daily contact with students. I also love that students let me know when my day has been full of too many meetings, without enough time for connection. We are in this together, and I treasure even the difficult conversations with students, through which we discover that it’s often when things are the hardest that we learn the most.

What drives you as a leader in BUILD?

My life mission is to live out 1 Thessalonians 5:11: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up…” I originally learned the King James Version of this passage, which used the word “edify.” Working in BUILD fully fits my life mission to edify others: to build up, encourage, and teach each student and each member of my team. It has also been great fun to build partnerships, both inside and outside of Bethel. We have had an ongoing grant partnership with West Pharmaceuticals to provide assistive technology to students in the BUILD program, departments across campus to provide internships, academic departments to provide an ever-growing list of elective courses, Student Life to provide integrated housing and fully-inclusive clubs and sports, Vocational Rehabilitation Services to provide direct vocational counseling, and even partners in the state legislature to provide funding for our students. These past few years have brought so much growth, and more amazing opportunities than I could have dreamed. It’s really inspiring! 

What would you like others in the Bethel community to know about the community you know and serve?

I think the most important thing for others to know is that all that our students in BUILD really need is an opportunity. Students in BUILD have amazing life stories. I⁠—and countless others at Bethel⁠—have been incredibly blessed by them. Through this comprehensive college experience, we are already seeing incredible success for our first graduating classes. They’ve been able to maintain meaningful employment and live more independently. But more than that, they’ve touched and inspired countless others along the way. They’ve really made Bethel a richer and more kingdom-like place.

Apply to the BUILD program

BUILD provides a supportive and comprehensive educational experience for students with intellectual disabilities. Students experience dynamic and encouraging instruction, career-oriented curriculum, specialized mentorship, and on-campus living—all within a supportive Christian environment.

Apply now