Students With Learning Disabilities Get Help With College

College Living Experience helps students with learning disabilities pursue their dreams of higher ed.

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As social coordinator and resident adviser for CLE's Denver program, Kirk Redwine helps students overcome slightly different problems. CLE students live with one another in apartment buildings near their college rather than living on campus. While performing rounds of the CLE students' rooms like a resident adviser from any other college, it is not uncommon for Redwine to remind students to shower, wash their crusty dishes, or clean the dirty laundry spread across their floors. If not for Redwine's reminders, these tasks might never get done, he says. Such responsibilities are just one piece of what students with autism and other learning disabilities need to learn to succeed. "Comprehensive support is so crucial," Redwine says. "To think someone with so many issues could do college without this type of multifaceted assistance is setting them up to fail."

Michelle Gross, academic liaison for CLE's Denver program, also sees the ability to organize an apartment or make friends as small successes that should come before—or at least in conjunction with—academic achievement. "If you're academically successful but you have no friends, then what's the point?" Gross says. She works hard to provide and coordinate academic support services tailored to each CLE student. If a student is anxious about attending a certain class, Gross frequently walks the student to the classroom door to ensure he or she arrives on time. Instead of providing students with one tutor for all their subjects, Gross works hard to hire tutors who specialize in students' coursework. For example, if a student is taking an accounting class, CLE will hire an upper-level accounting student to tutor. If a student is taking a culinary arts class, that student gets a chef as his or her tutor. CLE provides a different tutor two hours per week for each of a student's classes. Most important, Gross teaches students to be self advocates—to know how to explain their disabilities and to know what accommodations they need.

Though Brittany Ross has not graduated from the Community College of Denver, she is already putting the skills she learned through CLE to the test. In January, Ross left Denver to intern for one semester in Disneyworld through the Disney College Program. She says the achievement would not have been possible without her participation in a program like CLE. Each day Ross works as a restaurant hostess, she must use her social interaction skills, since the job is heavily dependent on customer interaction. Without CLE's tutoring, Ross's grades might have compromised her application to the program, and without CLE's emotional support, leaving Denver would have seemed too great a risk, she says.

Ross "loves" her Disney job, but she also misses the friends she has made through CLE. That in itself is a kind of accomplishment: Before she enrolled in the program, she struggled to form friendships with peers. "When I was younger I had a few friends, but I was never very popular and didn't really feel I belonged," Ross says. "Now, I have 50 students who have become my brothers and sisters and best friends, and I finally don't feel like I'm the one left out of the group."

Corrected on 02/26/09: An earlier version of this article misspelled clinical psychologist Tom Welch's name.