University of South Florida

College of Education

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Danielle Roberts-Dahm Portrait

Alumni Spotlight: L. Danielle “Danie” Roberts-Dahm, PhD | A Career She Never Imagined (Because It Didn’t Exist!)

As a graduate student working on grants supporting students with intellectual disability, Danie Roberts-Dahm found a lifeline in Think College, a national center dedicated to expanding inclusive higher education options.

“Any conference or webinar they offered, I was on,” says Roberts-Dahm, Elementary Education ’09, MA ’10 and PhD ’17. So when Think College received federal funding to launch a second national center, its leadership turned to their enthusiastic colleague at USF St. Petersburg to help lead it.

The timing was not ideal. Roberts-Dahm had just launched an exciting new inclusive higher education opportunity at USF St. Petersburg, the Eileen Hoffman Hafer UMatter Program.

“I was like, ‘How can I walk away?’” she says. She took a leap of faith, both in herself to take on this new opportunity at Think College and in the leaders working alongside her to continue to grow UMatter without her.

Her faith was well placed.

Today, Roberts-Dahm is the project coordinator for the Think College Inclusive Higher Education Network Project, assisting programs like UMatter all over the country. UMatter welcomed its inaugural class of students in August 2021 and continues to thrive.

“I always said I’m Think College’s No. 1 fan, and now I’m running one of their national centers. It’s kind of brought me full circle to how I started my professional career, but now I’m doing it on a national level. It’s amazing.”

It’s not the career path Roberts-Dahm envisioned, but it’s also one she could never have foreseen — inclusive postsecondary education didn’t begin to boom until after 2008. Today, she encourages student teachers to explore innovative ways to make an impact, if not in the classroom, then in the myriad ways they can expand opportunities for all students.

Growing up in Hernando County, Roberts-Dahm loved school. She gave herself “homework” assignments in kindergarten and played teacher to her dolls and two younger sisters.

“I pretty much always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” she says.

She finished her bachelor’s degree at USF St. Petersburg and had an elementary school teacher job lined up when a friend encouraged her to consider graduate school. A grant-funded project at the USF College of Education provided that option — it needed a graduate assistant. And she could get her master’s degree for free!

“I was a first-generation college student. I never had a master’s degree on my radar,” she says.

She got the job and went to work for Project 10: Transition Education Network. Soon after joining the team, Project 10 piloted a new program, Project 10 STING RAY (Students Transitioning Into the Next Generation, Recognizing Alternatives for Youth), focused on higher education opportunities for non-traditional students. It marked a turning point in her career path.

“It made me realize that whatever I do is going to be with people with intellectual disability in special education, ideally on a college campus,” she says. “I knew I’d most likely have to get a doctorate to be a changemaker.”

She took a few years between her master’s and her doctorate to gain some experience, continuing to work on STING RAY and other grants focused on secondary transition and students with disabilities. In 2015, she and her husband, Matthew Dahm, Engineering ’08, also launched Mastry’s Brewing in 2015, now an award-winning St. Petersburg business.

The time helped her realize she didn’t want her focus to be only special education, but also K-12 leadership and education policy.

“It was important to me to not be pigeonholed into either,” she says. When she began her doctoral coursework, the USF College of Education allowed her to carve out a course of study that included both special education and educational leadership.

“It was a lot of credits,” she says with a laugh.

Throughout her doctoral studies, she continued to work her way up into leadership positions on a statewide transition project (Project 10) and some other special education grant projects on the St. Petersburg campus; by the time Project 10 STING RAY was winding down, she was its director and principal investigator.

Then she and Lyman Dukes, a professor of special education, went to work on a new project, which would eventually become UMatter. Through it, motivated students with intellectual disability live on campus in a supported environment, audit classes and gain valuable professional, social and independent living skills as they work toward their certificate of completion and USF Career Micro-Badge.

“Danie was effectively working two full-time jobs at that point and did so with aplomb,” says Dukes. “She was an absolute professional and led both UMatter and Project 10 flawlessly.”

Eileen Hafer Hoffman, who would eventually make a gift to name the UMatter program, dreamed about creating an inclusive postsecondary education program with a residential component specifically in the College of Education at USF. Meeting Roberts-Dahm and Dukes was “magic.”

“There was so much passion and excitement in our first conversation,” she says. “I knew the moment I met Danie she was going to do everything it would take to secure the initial grant and get the program up and running. She did just that!"

Jayme Joslyn, who took over as director of UMatter in 2022, is reminded of a quote by Marian Wright Edelman when she thinks of Roberts-Dahm:

“Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.”

It was easy to see UMatter would do just that, Joslyn says. It improves the lives of UMatter students and families, as well USF students and faculty and local businesses.

“Danie made this possible. She is a professional who strives to excel by teaching others, supporting others and growing others,” says Joslyn. “She is a superwoman — a professional, a friend, a mother, a wife and the list goes on. Because of who Danie is, USF and the St. Petersburg community are better places due to the inclusive postsecondary work she has accomplished!”

Roberts-Dahm encourages students majoring in education to be open to alternative paths to their career, including special education.

“I think people shy away from special education because they’re like, ‘I don’t know how to do that’ or ‘I’m not that patient.’ But you’d be surprised,” she says. “Don’t be afraid of students who might seem a little different. We’re more similar than you think.”

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About the USF College of Education:

As the home for more than 2,200 students and 130 faculty members across three campuses, the University of South Florida College of Education offers state-of-the-art teacher training and collegial graduate studies designed to empower educational leaders. Our college is nationally accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), and our educator preparation programs are fully approved by the Florida Department of Education.