College is an exciting time in a young person’s life, but for students with learning differences it can be challenging and even discouraging. There is a major shift from K-12 education, where federal law demands that the school take responsibility for students’ learning, to college, where students are required to reach out and ask for their own accommodations.
Students with learning differences often see college as a chance to “outgrow” their learning difference and “be normal,” but by doing so, they may not have access to the support they need to thrive. The result? As academic pressures grow, students may begin to fall behind, feeling discouraged and hopeless.
Helping students with learning differences succeed in college requires more than just academic support; students need to develop self-awareness and self-advocacy skills. The work of programs like Project Eye to Eye is essential because they connect students with learning differences to a community of others who understand, while empowering them as leaders through mentoring younger students.
A recent Eye to Eye event at the University of Rochester highlights the power of belonging to this supportive community. The Eye to Eye chapter called on members to share their personal stories. Macey Ellison, president of the chapter, described how they simply wanted “to show people that it’s okay to talk about these things.” One student, who had always been successful in high school and entered college with undiagnosed dyslexia related, “I really felt alone.” Another student described how executive function challenges impacted her work, explaining that she had “trouble starting assignments, difficulty finding the right words to explain a situation, and poor short-term memory.” By sharing their stories, these students were offering each other understanding, hope, and concrete ideas for how to cope, and even thrive, in the demanding college environment.
As our students get their acceptance letters over the next few weeks, it is time to start forming transition plans. We must go beyond encouraging students to get an accommodation letter from the Disability Office. Instead, if we can help our students connect to a community of people who understand the challenges of dealing with learning differences, they will be more likely to self-advocate and to use the strategies they need.
- Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director