Gaining Confidence for College:
One Person's Journey
I finally became a student after I graduated from high school. I started my journey as a college student at Middlesex County College in the fall of 1996. I was a very intimidated 18-year-old freshman with serious doubts that I would be able to survive college-level work. By the time I got to Middlesex I had developed a real fear of schools.
School had been the place where I felt inferior, awkward, and unwanted. It was in school at the age of nine that I had realized that I had trouble with spelling, reading, and math. It was in school that I was laughed at and belittled for not being able to do the same work as my peers, and it was in school that I was placed in special education classes that left me feeling segregated from both the mainstream student body and the opportunities that a mainstreamed education make possible. Like heavy textbooks placed in a book-bag, I carried my fears of school with me to college.
Making the transition from high school to college is difficult for every young person, but as a young person with a learning disability I remember feeling as if my whole life was on the line and that I might not be able to rise to the challenge. For most of my time in high school I had felt that I was just getting by. The closer I got to graduation, the more frightened I became at the thought of what was going to happen to me once school was over. I could hardly write a grammatically correct sentence, I had trouble reading aloud, and my ability to do math was extremely limited. I lay awake at night worrying that I would only be able to find work as a janitor or a carpenter if I was lucky.
By my junior year the thought of not
being able to make a living with my mind drove me into a deep depression.
I questioned the value of my life and became extremely frustrated
with the limited options my education had left me. I sank lower and
lower and lower until I hit an emotional bottom.
It was at that point that I decided I had to at least try to overcome the negative perceptions that I had of my future. I decided that I would wrestle with my fears and not let them stop me from reaching my fullest potential. So, as graduation approached, I began to tell others and myself that I wanted to give college a chance.
Finding the Right Program
I enrolled at Middlesex County College based upon the advice of my high school child study team. Knowing that I had the desire to go to college and aware that my academic skills were very low, the child study team recommended that I start my collegiate education there because the college had a support program designed to offer additional help to students with documented learning disabilities. The program was called Project Connections. The child study team felt that I had a good chance of being accepted as a student because I showed a great desire to be in college and I had been mainstreamed for some classes during my senior year of high school. After filling out the application, with help from my guidance counselor and my mother, I submitted it to the college and was invited to an interview by a member of Project Connection’s staff. The interview gave project staff an opportunity to see with their own eyes whether or not I had what it took to make it in college. I remember sitting in the interview thinking “not another psychologist trying to figure me out!” But, even with my less than ideal disposition, I was accepted into Project Connections.
Even before I stepped foot on campus, I understood that Middlesex was not just another school. Middlesex County College was an opportunity for me. It was an opportunity to reinvent myself, to pursue my fullest potential, and to begin developing the skills that would define my future.
My first year as a Project Connections student completely transformed me. I was assigned a counselor who helped me to understand my disability from many different perspectives. One of our first sessions together involved us reading through every Individual Education Program (IEP) report that had ever been written about me. For the first time in my life someone actually explained to me what my disability was and taught me strategies to circumvent my academic shortcomings. My confidence as a student doubled — no tripled — as I began to understand the unique way my mind worked. My counselor explained to me what accommodations were and how they would help me with my reading and spelling problems. For the first time I used books-on-tape for my textbooks, and I used word processing software with a spell check to improve my spelling. I took most of my exams in a distraction-free testing room and was given time and a half to complete them. Testing in this way helped to remove the anxiety that I had felt when I had to take a test in the classroom with everyone else.
Supports Make a Difference
Project Connections also had an amazing adaptive technology lab. There were software programs that could translate my voice into text, and even machines that could scan any page of text and read it aloud. I remember feeling that with all the support from the Project Connection’s staff and with access to their adaptive technology lab, there would be very little I could not learn.
By the end of my first year of college I was excelling in all of my classes. I had learned how to write proper sentences, essays, and research papers. I also began writing and performing spoken word poetry throughout the tri-state area (Editor’s note: see page 6 for a sample of the author’s poetry). Despite my earlier experiences, math became a discipline that I was pretty proficient in, so I started thinking about declaring myself a math major.
The best part of all my successes as a college student was that I was doing the same work, in the same classes, with the same professors as everyone else on campus. The stigma of “Special Ed” was gone and I was learning how to stand up for myself in the classroom. I got to the point that I could tell my professors exactly what kind of accommodations I needed to be successful in their classes.
I stayed at Middlesex for five years until I had enough credits to transfer to a four-year college. I eventually decided to transfer to New Jersey City University (NJCU) to finish my undergraduate studies in mathematics. NJCU was an ideal institution for me because it was a relatively small school with an excellent support program for students with learning disabilities called Project Mentor. Project Mentor offered me much of the same support that I had found at Middlesex, but by the time I got to NJCU I had developed to the point that the only regular help I needed was a second pair of eyes to proof-read my written assignments. I spent two years at NJCU and graduated with honors in the spring of 2003 with a B.A. in Mathematics and a minor in Fine Art.
In conclusion, I would like to give some advice to all the students who are reading this article and preparing to make that very intimidating transition from high school to college. The first thing I need to tell all of you is Know Your IEP. Having a clear understanding of your learning disability is the first step to advocating for yourself and gaining control over your life. You need to know how your particular strengths and weaknesses affect your ability to learn. So make sure you have a copy of your IEP and take the time to read it. If you need help understanding any part of it, ask your teachers, guidance counselors, or child study team members to explain it to you.
Second, if you are
thinking about going to college you have to prepare for it.
Take as many mainstream classes as you possibly can. The experience
you get in those classes will help you handle the work you will have
to do in college. You may have to fight with your child study team,
but it is a fight worth having. It is important to remember that your
education is your education. Taking control of the classes you take
is one of the first steps in taking control of your life.
Third, make sure you go to a school that is right for you. You will waste a lot of time and money if you do not do your homework before deciding on a college. Different schools will offer you different experiences, environments, and supports. It is important that you have a clear understanding of what you will need to be successful and find a school that will meet those needs. I am a person who likes small schools where you can have more contact with your professors and get extra help if you need it. I also like having the support of a program for students with learning disabilities. Some of you may work better in big schools with less support for your disability, but it is important to know what you need before you decide on a school.
And the last thing I have to say to all the students out there is There Is Nothing Wrong With You! I remember growing up in special education classes and thinking that I was crazy, stupid, and worthless. Our population is filled with extremely intelligent and artistic people who happen to process information differently than the “average” person. We are all different in some way, shape or form, and the sooner you can understand your differences and embrace them, the better off you will be.
LeDerick Horne is a guest contributor to this issue of TECH-NJ.