Associate Director/Transisition Specialist Emily Johnson,right, and student Lee Olson work together in the Project STEPP area at the Joyner Library on Wednesday, April 17, 2013. (Aileen Devlin/ The Daily Reflector)
“I’ve been called stupid. I’ve been called retarded, the whole nine yards. I’m not stupid. It took me 12 years to figure that out, but I finally did.”
By Kim Grizzard
Sunday, April 21, 2013
In East Carolina University’s sea of purple and gold shirts, Lee Olson stands out. The letters printed across the front of her T-shirt are not ECU. They are LD and ADHD.
There was a time when Olson hated the labels. The Washington, D.C., native would not even tell friends about her dyslexia, much less reveal it in public. In denial about her learning disability, Olson despised being called out of class for special education services. She wept when she met to discuss her progress with school counselors.
“I didn’t have faith in myself,” Olson said. “I didn’t think that I would be able to go to college or graduate from high school even.”
With neither the grades nor the SAT scores most colleges required, Olson entered the fall of her senior year of high school questioning what her next move might be. The answer turned out to be ECU’s Project STEPP, a program designed to help students with learning disabilities realize their potential to earn college degrees.
“There’s a population of students out there who have the potential to be very successful in college, but with the traditional level of support that’s available in college, those students would most likely slip between the cracks,” said Emily Johnson, associate director and transition specialist with Project STEPP (Supporting Transition and Education through Planning and Partnership).
In 2009, the National Center for Learning Disabilities reported an estimated 2.5 million students — or about 5 percent of public school students — were identified as having learning disabilities. But students with learning disabilities attend four-year institutions at about one-fourth of the rate of other students, according to a study funded by the U.S. Department of Education.
To address the disparities, the University of North Carolina system has developed College STAR (Supporting Transition, Access and Retention). Through this initiative, funded primarily by grants from GlaxoSmithKline and the Oak Foundation, UNC aims to become the first public university system to intentionally address education for students with learning differences, which are estimated to affect 3 to 9 percent of college students. Student support programs have been implemented at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Appalachian State University as well as at ECU through Project STEPP.
Launched in 2007, Project STEPP now has three dozen students, from freshmen to seniors. About one-third of them have a diagnosis of attention deficit disorder in addition to their learning disability.
Only 10 students a year are admitted to the program, which provides a network of support, including advisers, mentors, tutors and counselors. Participants live in the same dorm, and freshmen are required to spend 15 hours a week outside of class completing their school work in the Project STEPP office.
The program, designed to enable students to complete a bachelor’s degree in five years, limits students to 12 credit hours their first semester. Participants are required to complete five Project STEPP courses that address topics including study skills, learning strategies, organization and time management.
“We really work with them in those courses on developing the routines, the habits and the strategies that are going to help them be successful in all of their academic classes but also just in general as a college student,” Johnson said. “… This isn’t magic.”
For freshman Emily Bosak, Project STEPP has been the next best thing. The program’s yearlong entry process (students apply the spring of their junior year in high school) helped her make a smooth transition to college.
Bosak — who has learning disabilities in reading, writing and math, in addition to dyslexia — struggled in high school, not only to make adequate grades, but to have others understand her learning disabilities.
“I’ve been called stupid. I’ve been called retarded, the whole nine yards,” the Raleigh native and stage management major said. “I’m not stupid. It took me 12 years to figure that out, but I finally did.”
While Bosak was eligible to receive educational assistance in high school under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, some teachers questioned why a student who seemed to be so articulate would need such accommodations. She recalls one teacher who inadvertently revealed Bosak’s dyslexia to the entire class.
“My mom would always say, ‘I can sue you for my rights, but I can’t make you care,’” Bosak said. “That’s the biggest difference. This (Project STEPP) is a group of people who genuinely care about you and genuinely want you to succeed, and you can tell. You can see it.”
Project STEPP students are succeeding. While it is too early in the project to assess graduation rates, Johnson said students’ grades show they are achieving success in the classroom in majors ranging from communication and criminal justice to English and education.
“In terms of overall cumulative GPA, they tend to be roughly on par with everybody else,” she said, adding that about half of Project STEPP freshmen have a grade point average of 3.0 or better.
Olson, a family and community services major with a concentration in early intervention, finished her first semester at ECU with a 3.5.
“I didn’t even come close to anywhere near a 3.0 in high school,” she said.
Olson, who said she came to college with below-average skills in reading and writing, remembers having to rewrite papers three or four times each during her freshman year. As her writing skills improved, so did her confidence.
“It took me a long time to become comfortable,” she said. “But once I did, I’m very confident in myself now and not afraid to tell anybody (about having learning disabilities).”
Last year, Olson was involved in founding an ECU chapter of Eye to Eye, a national mentoring program that pairs college students with learning disabilities with younger students who have been similarly labeled. One of 51 chapters in 19 states, ECU’s Eye to Eye chapter meets during the school year with students at Building Hope Community Life Center.
Pairs get together once a week, not for academic remediation but for what is known as “art room,” a creative curriculum designed to allow college mentors to talk with instead of tutor students.
“(Art) doesn’t require them to draw on skills where they might be more likely to struggle,” Johnson said. “It allows them to express themselves in a way where there’s no way to do it wrong. Very often these students might be in the classroom and hearing far too often the things that they’re not doing right.”
Working together on art projects gives mentors and younger students a chance to talk about their common struggles, though mentors do not push students to discuss learning disabilities.
“We don’t want to directly say you’re dyslexic or you’re ADHD,” Olson said. “We want them to talk about it once they’re comfortable with us.
“This is getting to know somebody who’s made the accomplishments that you want to make,” she said. “A lot of these kids want to graduate from high school, would love to go to college but maybe feel that they can’t do it.”
Olson grew up surrounded by evidence that people who have learning disabilities can succeed. She attended a high school for students with disabilities; both of her parents have dyslexia. But until Project STEPP, Bosak had never met another student who had a learning disability.
She and other Eye to Eye volunteers hope their involvement will help younger students have a different experience, one that focuses on possibilities instead of limitations.
“Those kids can see that they (the mentors) made it through,” Johnson said. “They’re in college. They’re doing well. It plants that seed in their (younger students’) minds of ‘I can do this.’”
Three years after beginning Project STEPP, Olson not only feels she can make it through college, she is considering applying to graduate school. She no longer is intimidated by the fact that she has a learning disability.
“All my friends know that I have a learning disability. I’m kind of flaunting it around. I’m wearing a T-shirt that says LD/ADHD: Take Action,” she said, referring to her Eye to Eye shirt.
“Until I was comfortable with it, I hid it all the time; it was really a struggle,” Olson said. “But once I became confident and I was able to self-advocate, I was a whole other person.”
Contact Kim Grizzard at email@example.com or at 252-329-9578.
via The Daily Reflector.