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HDFS Ecampus student launches consulting business to help people with special needs find jobs

Kathryn Cowsert

Kathryn Cowsert launched her business, Meraki Consulting, while enrolled in the human development and family sciences program online through OSU Ecampus. “Some of the individuals I work with had never had a job,” she says. “I get to tell them that not only can they get a job, I will help with each step along the way to ensure they are set up for success.”

By Heather Turner   
May 18, 2016

Kathryn Cowsert has it all: a loving husband she recently married, a thriving consulting business and soon an Oregon State University degree in hand.

But Kathryn prefers not to focus on herself and instead shine the light on those she helps.

Raised to serve others, Kathryn sets aside $10 a month to spend on a grocery store gift card that she hands to the first person she passes on her way out.

“I imagine it makes that person’s day better or that they can bring home dinner that night,” she says.

It’s a testament to her values, and just the tip of the iceberg of what she does for others.

Online student turned entrepreneur

While studying human development and family sciences (HDFS) online through Oregon State Ecampus, Kathryn launched her own business, Meraki Consulting, in spring 2015. She provides job services to individuals with barriers to employment, particularly those with special needs.

Through a partnership with Linn, Benton and Lane counties, as well as with the State of Oregon Department of Human Services Vocational Rehabilitation program, Kathryn connects with employers and assists people with special needs as they obtain and maintain a job that matches their skills, abilities and interests.

“Some of the individuals I work with had never had a job,” she says. “I get to tell them that not only can they get a job, I will help with each step along the way to ensure they are set up for success.”

Watch this video to learn more about Kathryn, her OSU Ecampus experience and her job. (Video by Rick Henry)

She lends her helping hand from the beginning and until her clients are comfortable on their own, offering services such as assessment, community work experience and job placement. She helps write résumés and cover letters, sets up – and sits in on – interviews with potential employers, and provides on-the-job training and support for the first 90 days of employment.

One of her clients went from spending a few years volunteering in a Corvallis thrift shop to an official employee – her first paid position – thanks to Kathryn’s help.

“I was always nervous to actually ask for a job there,” says Shelby, Kathryn’s client. “When I talked with Kathryn about what my situation was, she was extremely friendly and super nice about it and I felt very comfortable. She helped with my résumé and was able to get me into a meeting at the main office and set up a job interview, and I got the job.”

Now working in customer service, Shelby says Kathryn provided her with a sense of confidence she previously did not possess.

“She helped me push to get a job because I’m not really social and I get nervous really easily, and she helped give me that little push that I needed to get my life together,” Shelby says. “I’m just super positive and so outgoing now. I see my future as so much brighter now.”

“Everybody deserves an equal opportunity to have a job and to be able to interact with their peers and community members.”

In just over a year, Kathryn has helped more than 20 people in the Willamette Valley obtain jobs, ranging from a Little League baseball umpire to a lifeguard, and an administrative assistant to a baker.

“Everybody deserves an equal opportunity to have a job and to be able to interact with their peers and community members,” she says. “For the first time, they get to see that there are no limitations for them and their skills. It’s so inspiring to watch that light go off in their eyes. I love my job.

“If there is a restaurant out there that needs someone to roll silverware for an hour a day, I have a person for you. If you need someone to file papers for four hours once a week, I have an individual for you.”

Her clients range in age from 18 to 70 and have employment barriers due to various reasons including, but not limited to, intellectual or developmental disabilities, such as being wheelchair-bound, visually or hearing impaired, living with cerebral palsy or using the assistance of a service animal.

“If you do have special needs, people like her are there to help you,” says one of Kathryn’s clients, who wishes to remain anonymous. “She was great. She gave me a lot of confidence and helped me get a job.”

She not only serves her clients, but also community businesses.

“They get a fully trained individual who gets support by having me on-site, and it takes the pressure off of having to supervise an individual,” she says. “I get to experience the job alongside them. I’m there to catch the small mistakes and provide another level of communication between employers and clients. I get to wear a bunch of different hats.”

Once in need, now helping others in need

But Kathryn will be the first to admit her current success didn’t come easily, and she was once the one who needed guidance.

She had previously been through some ups and many downs: A move caused her to lose out on in-state tuition, then she learned her community college credits would no longer transfer to where she originally wanted to attend college in California, and another move to Eugene resulted in her obtaining a job she “really disliked.”

And then, one gloomy day during her hourlong commute to work in Portland at a time when she was feeling particularly sorry for herself, she got a sign – in the form of a bus advertisement for Oregon State Ecampus online degrees.

“When I saw the advertisement, I looked into it and found that OSU had a great program, my diploma would not specify that it was online, I would be able to work and go to school full time and I could walk at the end with the rest of my class,” she says. “I was sold.”

“I’d just like to pay it forward and help other people achieve their goals.”

Kathryn Cowsert

“For the first time, they get to see that there are no limitations for them and their skills,” Kathryn says. “It’s so inspiring to watch that light go off in their eyes. I love my job.”

She applied that week and was accepted into the HDFS program through Oregon State Ecampus, a national leader in online education.

It wasn’t always easy for Kathryn. She initially struggled with balancing work and school and relied heavily on the support of her academic advisor.

“Kathryn went from being someone unsure if she would even complete her degree to a self-assured woman who’s not afraid to live her life on her own terms,” says College of Public Health and Human Sciences Academic Advisor Josie Miranda. “I’m really proud of her and excited about her future.”

“I couldn’t be more thankful for the way Josie saw me as a person and a student, and helped keep me on track to fulfill my goals,” Kathryn says.

Kathryn soon found that learning online actually benefitted her.

“Ecampus forced me to learn the material and engage and interact,” she says. “If you do not do the work and know the material each week, it is pretty obvious in an online class.”

With her newfound academic confidence, Kathryn landed an entry-level position in job development, where she discovered her passion of helping others accomplish their dreams.

Once that company moved and she could no longer commute, Kathryn took it as another sign – and launched her business. The rest is history.

“I couldn’t do it alone and I needed help, and I’d just like to pay it forward and help other people achieve their goals,” she says.

Kathryn plans on walking with her classmates – most of whom she has yet to meet in person – during OSU’s commencement ceremony on June 11 at Reser Stadium.

“Just like with my clients, Oregon State University provided me with the tools and abilities, and I had to come in with the willpower to make my dreams happen,” she says. “So that’s hopefully what I can provide to my clients. I give them the tools, I give them the confidence and the support, and then I give them a little push and hopefully it leads to them being successful.

“It has been a long road, but my experience at OSU has been so positive and I am so grateful that I saw that bus on that rainy day in Portland.”