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My Successful Transition Story

pexels-photo-203237by Jordan Westwood

This article is written in three parts.  Parts one and two will describe how I graduated high school and college; and part three will be my ten tips for anyone with a learning disability who wants to graduate from college. Part three provides Ten Tips to help students who may be considering post-secondary education.

High School Preparation, Advocating and Transition

In 2001 I was diagnosed with learning disabilities.  As a young child my grandmother knew I was developmentally delayed and advocated for early intervention on my behalf.  Services such as occupational therapy(OT), physical therapy (PT) and speech therapy started at 18 months of age in the home and transitioned with me to a preschool setting, and then all the way through elementary school. Early intervention is highly recommended but sometimes disabilities aren’t noticed until kindergarten.  I have found it helpful to maintain OT and PT services.

The OT and I worked on some executive function skills that are essential for independent living.  As a young child, I needed speech therapy because my articulation was not clear and I had trouble pronouncing some words. Language processing was also addressed during my speech sessions. I was not reading like the other students who were in my first grade class. My teacher told my grandmother, “Oh, don’t worry, it will come.” Well, my Grandmother had a feeling that it was not going to just come easy to me. So she decided to take me to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for a learning psychological evaluation. I was diagnosed with Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, and Written Expression Disorder. An IEP (Individualized Education Program) was put into place in Pre-School, and this benefited me in many ways in the school system because I was eligible for many services.

In the early years, I struggled with peer relationships from kindergarten and continued to do so throughout high school. I was quite impulsive, and I guess my behavior wasn’t too conducive to having many friends. I did have play dates and friends in school but I never really felt like the other students. I felt like I wasn’t as smart, and at times I also felt different from them, too. I wanted to be accepted and liked but sometimes I think I tried too hard and the other students were not always very receptive to the way I acted.  I learned to accept the fact that I was going to have to constantly work on being self-aware and therapy really helped me with these skills. 

Advocacy!  

In high school I started the first youth run self-advocacy club because I didn’t like hearing the other students say or think that they couldn’t go to college. I explained to them, “No matter what your disability, you could indeed go to college.”

I was always on target at my IEP meetings making sure I had the necessary courses to gain entrance into college. The Child Study team wanted me to take lower level courses. However, with my persistence I took the higher level classes and passed them. My IEP allowed for in-home tutoring in Math, Spanish, Science and English, which is exactly how I learned best – and I needed that constant repetition and the individualized attention. I knew my learning disability was always going to be with me, but I learned to cope with it.

I have many strategies that work for the way I process learning. I’ve included them in my “ten tips” at the end of this article in part three.  One of my strategies is that I learn best my repetition.  Therefore, if I need to memorize vocabulary words I use index cards to have them “sink in.” That is how I memorized over 900 SAT vocabulary words!  I still know them to this day and like to review them every once in awhile!

After four years of working hard in high school and receiving distinguished honors, it was time for me to start applying to colleges! I applied to many, with my aspiration of being accepted at a four-year college. My dream came true! Not only was I accepted into a four-year college, I graduated from college in four years. Let me explain how I was able to achieve this. When I am determined to overcome something and prove to others that have told me that I am not college material, I work even harder. I don’t like hearing I cannot do something.

Let me tell you, in high school I never gave my teachers a break. I later became known as “teacher’s pet” for the high school yearbook. And I must admit I was a PEST.  I was always on time to class; always had my homework completed and would ask questions pertaining to class and the homework.  I was allowed to leave the class when I needed a break, and had extended time on tests and quizzes.  In addition, I was always asking to meet with the teachers before or after class, and would do any extra credit given. Sometimes I even asked for extra credit!  After successfully graduating high school, I was ready for the next adventure.

OFF TO COLLEGE

It has always been my dream to attend college. When I was in third grade, a kind neighbor would sit down with me, and tell me that my job at the time was school if I wanted to go to college. I needed to focus on my studies and keep that aspiration of college in the back of my mind.  This neighbor took an interest in my education and wanted to see me succeed. We continued our chats throughout my school days. I believe that because of our conversations, I was really on the right track with all of my assignments.

The best part is that this neighbor saw me overcome my struggles and obstacles and attended my college graduation. We both cried at the end because he and I were so proud of my accomplishments and that my dream of graduating college had come true!

I have many learning disabilities that have made my college experience a remarkable feat. My ability to self-disclose, advocate intensely, stay determined, and stay persistent was needed for my successful college experience, culminating in graduation. The more I advocated for myself, the more self-confident I began to feel.

Below I will share some important things to remember before starting college.

  • Your most recent learning psychological evaluation along with your IEP should follow you to the Office of Disability Support Services at your college of choice.
  • You do not have to declare yourself disabled on your college application or even in an interview. Once you are accepted however, is when you can declare yourself  “disabled” in the Office of Disability Support Services. Then the college comes up with an accommodation plan for you. Some accommodations could include but are not limited to: books on tape, note-taker, extended time on tests and projects.
  • Colleges must follow the accommodations under the ADA but very specific accommodations are hard to acquire. In my case, I had to have an added addendum for my specific needs from my learning psychological evaluator for each new course for each semester. I kept in constant contact with each of my professors and the Director of Differing Abilities each semester. Each new semester I made sure to email the professors at least two weeks in advance, suggesting we have a conversation about my specific needs.It’s important to be in constant communication with the Disability Supports Office early into each semester to let them know which supports are helping and which ones are not, if any.
  • I chose to stay on top of things to get what I needed to pass each college course.  Many teachers were helpful and understanding of my learning challenges because I showed them I was serious about doing well in their classes.
  • There are even accommodations to single dorm rooms and accessing parking garages at some colleges and universities.

The transitional phase from high school to college can be confusing for many.   New demands of postsecondary education are significantly different from an IEP in high school.  It’s important to know that the IEP does not work like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. In college there are no longer IEP’s. The ADA requires the provision of “reasonable accommodations.” And unlike high school, postsecondary education is not going to chase you down to see if you are struggling or if you have a disability. This is the part where being an advocate comes in.  A person must self-disclose that they have disabilities in order to be eligible to receive services. However, that is completely voluntary. In my opinion, I feel that some students choose not to disclose because they are embarrassed or ashamed to be seen as different. I learned very quickly that if I wanted to succeed in college and receive multiple accommodations I was going to have to disclose my disabilities. Therefore, there was absolutely no hesitation or shame on my part to disclose my disabilities. Freshmen year I was capable of managing four classes, however as my classes became more difficult  I could only manage three at a time. In addition, I began to take courses every summer and winter to be able to graduate in four years.

At one point it did bother me that people would look down upon me or judge me at my college performance level. But after all, I knew after declaring myself on the first day of college that was the only way for me to successfully receive my college diploma. I am very proud of my pep and accomplishments thus far. I hope my story can inspire you!  Anything is possible if you work hard and believe in yourself.

10 Tips for Transitioning into College and Successfully Graduating

With my grit and tenacity I graduated college!  I know my learning disabilities will always be something that will be a part of me, and that is okay with me! There are actually many people that have learning disabilities. Some may not even be aware they have one. I want to get the word out to others, that it’s okay to have disabilities. Don’t be ashamed. Acknowledging it can bring you closer together with others that share similar difficulties.

My goals have been met after continuous persistence; despite people who were less than encouraging in response to attending college. But what they don’t know is just how much their part was in helping me work harder and succeed at achieving my dreams. After years of transitions, I have found that my learning disability was actually an “ability concealed.” I encourage you to find your abilities too!

Here are my top ten tips for success:

  1. Make sure your psychological testing is up-to-date.  Most colleges and universities require this testing be no more than two-three years old.
  2. Start taking the correct courses and planning for college as early as your freshmen year in high school. Stick to taking college prep courses or honors if you can. Colleges like to see that you challenged yourself and were able to manage your time, study and manage other important daily living skills as well.
  3. Understand your particular learning disabilities. You should know and be able to articulate your strengths and weaknesses as well as what compensating techniques and accommodations work best for you. It is vital that students are their own advocates. Discuss your learning disabilities and needed accommodations with your high school instructors and continue to do this in college as well.
  4. Learn about Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This law indicates what types of accommodations must be provided and/or allowed at post secondary institutions if a student requests them. The responsibility is on the individual to initiate the provision of services and accommodations (unlike the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA] which puts the responsibility on elementary and secondary schools).
  5. Get information on special exam arrangements for SAT and/or ACT. Options include extended time, readers or cassettes.
  6. Try to visit a college before making a definite choice. Also, look at the communities in which they are located.  Visit as many college campuses as you can before making a final determination. Call the colleges that interest you. Ask to speak to the Disability Supports Office to see what kind of accommodations they are offering. Colleges like Landmark, Lynn, Lesley, University of Pittsburgh, and University of Arizona are particularly open to accommodating students. These colleges and universities will go over and above to provide you with necessary accommodations, while some other colleges may not have as extensive services.
  7. Take part-time jobs or volunteer positions. These are helpful to improve socialization skills as well as to give a better understanding of work situations and expectations and responsibility.
  8. Utilize the skills that you were taught at home to be successful in college especially if you’re living away from home on your own. For example, if you kept a daily planner to help you organize or set alarms to keep you on schedule continue to do so once you are in a different environment.
  9. While it is important to know your learning issues, you also need to practice being able to state exactly what accommodations work best for you. Here is an example of something I would say to my professors in college: “I need to take my exams in a separate room or in the disability supports office with a reader. I am also going to need extended time to complete my exam.” I would sometimes also ask if I could use notes on any of my exams. Some professors were more accommodating than others.
  10. Last but not least, remember just because you have a dis`ability’ doesn’t mean you are less than anyone else. You are a person with the same worth and importance as any other person.  The sooner you can see your disability as your ability and not label yourself for having a disability, the happier you will be and that’s when your self confidence will kick in!  By focusing in on your talents and strengths you will see how many gifts you have to offer.

I am happy to say, with all of my experiences transitioning through high school and college; I can now help many other students reach their maximum educational potential.

About the author:

Jordan Westwood is a graduate of The College of New Jersey Class of 2015.  And is currently a Peer Advocate coaching special education high school students, and on the Student Advisory Board at Advancing Opportunities in Ewing, NJ. While in college she participated in Partners in Policymaking through the NJ Council on Developmental Disabilities, Circle of Compassion group on campus and she also advocated for students with disabilities and their families. 

She will be attending Transitions 2017- Empowering independent learning at Lynn University  addressing self-awareness and self-advocacy through a Interactive/Interview Format. 

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