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Julia Frost, Director, Jones Learning Center, University of the Ozarks, Clarksville, Arkansas

Janae Cantu graduated cum laude from the University of the Ozarks on May 13, with a degree in sociology.  This in itself is not remarkable until you hear a bit about Janae’s story

Describe your learning disability and how it affects you in and out of school.  I have severe dyslexia.  Reading doesn’t come naturally to me.  You can tell me a word, and five minutes later I don’t know it.  It doesn’t stick.  Also, communicating my thoughts on paper is challenging.  In school, it affects me a lot because I can listen to lectures, but if I’m asked to read aloud or do something in class, I can’t verbalize well because I don’t know the words or how to make sense of my thoughts.  Outside of school, I worked as a waitress a lot because my family owned a restaurant.  But, it was really hard for me to take orders because I can’t spell, and I couldn’t remember everything that was ordered.

How old were you when you were diagnosed with a learning disability?  What is your earliest memory of struggling in school?  In kindergarten or first grade I remember them taking me to a center for tests.  My first memory of struggling was in a second grade reading section.  I began cheating off my friends.  Specifically, one friend fed me answers then and throughout elementary and middle school.  At that time I was sent to special classes for about an hour a day.  We were taught English there, but not like other students in “normal” classes.  It was weird.  They were learning parts of speech with songs.  We weren’t doing that.  I didn’t understand why not.

What were your toughest challenges in the classroom?  In high school, teachers gave me extended time on tests, and they would read them to me or explain questions.  I felt awkward going to the teacher because no one else had to do that.  Writing papers was also terrible.  I couldn’t get my thoughts down, so my Mom or my big sister would write for me.  I didn’t know why it didn’t click for me.  My sister has it MUCH easier with spelling and writing.

What kinds of feelings have you had growing up and encountering difficulties related to your disability?  My peers didn’t really treat me differently because they knew I didn’t like talking about it.  My parents knew I had a disability, and my dad has dyslexia, so he really understood.  He told me, “Don’t let that stop you.  It may take you a little bit to do things, but you can do it.”  They pushed me through high school and college because they knew I had to do it.  If I didn’t have their support, I wouldn’t be here.

Did your struggles ever cause your self-esteem to suffer?  Oh, yes!  I felt ashamed if I needed help and assistance.  I didn’t understand why the other students were picking it up and I wasn’t.  I didn’t want people to realize how hard it was for me.  I didn’t want people to look at me differently.  I had really dark moments in school.  My self-esteem was very low because of dyslexia.  I just didn’t know how I would get assignments done.

Where does your drive come from?  My personality and how my parents raised me.  They always told me, “You have to work hard to get anywhere.”

Were there any particular interventions or teaching methods that helped you make gains academically?  In the spring of my senior year after basketball season, there was a woman who took over in the special education room and helped me with writing.  I had to make a senior memory book with different chapters.  I was really behind and working on applying for scholarships for college, too.  She took dictation from me and helped me get caught up.  I really couldn’t have done it without that support.  I did spend one summer while I was in college with one of my friends whose mom is an academic language therapist.  I needed to continue that work, but I haven’t had time.  With her help, though, my reading really improved.

What has college been like for you?  Good.  It’s been challenging learning how to balance everything and get everything done.  Now I can better handle things and get papers done.  I’ve learned how to write papers – how to start, transition, and organize.  The first year I thought, “This is impossible!”  Now, I may still get stuck, but most of the time I know what to do and can put the pieces together.  I am much more confident.

Do you use technology for support?  I bought Dragon for myself, and I use the Kurzweil reader and audiotexts.  Speaking to my iPhone comes in handy – even when I just need a word.  I can speak it, and then it will come up, so I know how to spell it.

In what ways has the Jones Learning Center (JLC) helped you?  It helped me a LOT with writing – how to format, and specific steps to take.  The writing specialist and LD assistant have taught me how to tackle a paper.  If I’m stuck, they ask me questions that get the ball rolling again – maybe stretch something.  Sometimes I just get overwhelmed with so much to do, but the staff in the JLC help me to get organized and take one step at a time.  The JLC has helped to build up my confidence.  Now I know I can do this!

What personal strategies have you used to be successful?  I scheduled times with the writing assistant and with tutors.  Then I knew what assignments I had coming up and knew what I wanted to do in each session.  In Abnormal Psychology, I converted important points from the chapter to an outline then to Quizlet to make flashcards, and I studied that way.  Quizlet is amazing!  When I have had papers due, I signed up for support, got the outline complete, and then spread out the tasks so it was not so overwhelming.  I tackle one project at a time and know when assignments are due.  Organization was always natural for me, even if I couldn’t do anything else.

What advice would you give to parents of children who struggle with LD and are hoping to attend college?  Do what my parents did.  Don’t limit them.  Understand the disability – “What are we working with here?”  But, don’t leave it there.  Then ask, “What are we going to do differently?  How are we going to tackle this?”  Be aware of different programs that could help, like Dragon and personal dictation.  Show kids they can figure it out.  Encourage your children.  Let them know that you understand.  Teach them ways to get the job done with their disabilities.  I didn’t have Dragon in high school.  I wish I had had a rhythm of using it so that I could have built up those skills.  That way, when another assignment came up I would be fine.  The longer you do something, the more natural it becomes.  Get the thoughts onto paper, and then format it later.  Parents can help students and themselves to get comfortable with the disability and the tools that you can use to tackle assignments.

What advice would you give a child with a LD who is struggling in school?  What would you say to second grade Janae if you could?  “Keep going.  Don’t give up.”  To other children I would say, “If I can get a degree, you can, too!”  You should never settle.  Never put limits on what you can do because the reward will be great.  You can impact the next kid – the next person you run into – even someone without a learning disability.  The weak can impact even the strong – even people you think you couldn’t.

Is there anything that you would do differently or think should have been done differently during your educational journey?  I wouldn’t change coming here (to Ozarks), but if I had been introduced to Dragon earlier in high school or middle school, I would have been more comfortable with getting thoughts on paper.  Then everything would flow together better.

How long did people spend teaching you to read?  In elementary I went to summer school.  In middle school I had a reading teacher.  She didn’t spend a full year teaching me how to read again.  She knew I could do it, but things just didn’t click.  I couldn’t retrieve it.  At school I had an extra tutor that my parents paid, but then finances stopped that.  I wish there were more resources for schools to provide one-to-one tutors.

Tell me about a time when you were really proud of yourself.  At the beginning of this school year I was asked to be the senior speaker for matriculation.  Just writing that speech was hard, and my sister helped me, but I basically wrote that speech and spoke it in front of a LOT of people.  It was not natural for me, but even though I was scared, I did it anyway.  I was also proud of myself at high school graduation, and I was proud that I didn’t want to stop my education.  My family is very proud of me.  I blow my dad’s mind because we are kind of the same person – deal with the same things.  I blow his mind with how far I’ve come.  Now I’m ready to get my diploma.  It’s an awesome feeling that I actually blew my dad’s mind.  My parents never went to college, but they encouraged all of us to go to college.  My older sister has a bachelor’s in women’s and gender studies and is working as a social worker.  My younger sister is in her second year of college and is majoring in social work, and now I’m getting a degree in sociology and am planning to be a social worker!  We’re all three the same!

Were there mentors or people in your life that helped to make your journey easier or prepared you for the challenges that you faced?  I always had people from church who were mentors spiritually and personally who I could go to.  That was my safe place when everything else was falling apart.  Debbie (her academic support coordinator who died suddenly on March 10, 2017) was a big mentor for me here in so many ways – not just academics, but in dealing with my mom’s cancer – just anything.

Do you feel prepared for life after college?  I am super nervous, super scared.  But, if I got this far and learned how to juggle it here, I can definitely juggle it in the workforce.  At work I won’t have to try to master everything like I had to at a liberal arts college, but only one area.  It will be easier in the workforce.  I will have free time in the work world!  That will be nice.  I’m not sure how to address my disability with my employers.  I don’t know if I should mention it in my interview or after I get the job.  Probably not until after I get the job.

What are your plans?  I know that I want to work for the Department of Human Services, but I don’t know where. They won’t look at you if you don’t have a degree.  I thought about Rogers, AR or moving back to Oklahoma and getting a job there.  I would like to start as a case worker in family services.

What is your dream job?  I would love to be a counselor in a school – elementary, middle school, or high school.  I have always had a desire to help people any way I could.  If I could impact one person, it would be enough.  My middle school counselor was very involved in the community. She helped in any way she could.  If my students needed something, I would fix their physical needs first, and then try to motivate them and listen to what is on their minds.

Julia Frost, is the Director, Jones Learning Center, University of the Ozarks, Clarksville, Arkansas and Co-Chair of the LDA Adult Topics Committee.

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