Higher Education

Home/Higher Education

Neurodiversity Goes to College

The conversation started as reception conversations typically do:  names, personal CSB and SJU stories, then family connections and history.

This mom related that her son is a current Johnnie.  He is having a great experience, for which the family is very grateful.  They were not sure this would be the case, despite a deep knowledge of Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s—a couple uncles and an aunt are graduates and his family had lived in this area for the current Johnnie’s whole life.

I must have looked perplexed at this scenario, though I did not say anything.  His mom then said, “We were worried about the transition to college because my son is on the autism spectrum.  We were especially concerned about the social challenges.”

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often affects communication and social skills and can make some everyday interactions more complicated and even fraught, as has been noted recently in the higher education press.

Like most high functioning autistic students, her son had the talent and desire to pursue a college degree.  There was never a question of if  he would go, but the question was where?  Her son had his college choice narrowed down to Saint John’s and another Minnesota private school.  He had set up a matrix of pros and cons for the two schools with the usual entries: cost, location, academic offerings, outcomes, facilities, etc.  What he did not include, maybe unsurprisingly for a young man on the autism spectrum, were social environment and community, though to be fair, these are hard to quantify or judge for virtually all prospective students.  Every school offers some sense of community and the social environment can be difficult to assess from the outside.  In the end, using his own analysis, her son chose Saint John’s and enrolled.

He was assigned a roommate whom he did not know.  For someone who is not adept at reading social cues and can find new social situations confusing and even painful, dorm life, which is not simple in the best of times – requiring living with dozens of strangers – is among the most daunting aspects of college life.

This Johnnie reported that he and his roommate got along fine.  While they did not have a lot in common and did not continue as roommates after freshman year, they shared their dorm room amicably, and the young man said he learned that not all students took his approach to college.  He found that his roommate was not as focused on academic responsibilities as the ASD Johnnie was.  Social activities seemed more important—something the ASD Johnnie continues to find curious.  “Why would someone spend so much money on college and not focus on academics?”  But overall, the roommate experience was positive from the student’s and his family’s point of view.

In the classroom, the ASD Johnnie was well-prepared and, as is true when students get into their majors, mostly got to pick courses that played to his academic strengths.  What was especially helpful was that a faculty member recognized this young man’s strengths in math and science and, after completing the professor’s course, the young man was asked to assist in grading homework and tutoring other students.

From my conversation with the mother, it was unclear whether the professor knew that the Johnnie was on the autism spectrum, though it seems likely an experienced faculty member would know.  In any case, a professor seeking a tutor for students in his or her classes would certainly consider the social skills of the tutor.  It was clear to professor and student alike that the social interactions involved in tutoring were going to stretch this Johnnie, regardless of whether the faculty member knew of the formal ASD diagnosis.

However, both the professor and the Johnnie were up for the challenge.  The tutoring has gone well for both parties as well as the tutees over several semesters, and it also helped the young man discern that teaching was probably not the right career path for him.  While successfully helping his peers, he reported that he did not always understand why those he was helping didn’t find the material as easy as he did.

The mother also reported that her son had found students “with similar interests” on campus and that her son had a roommate and a group of friends.  Social interactions are still not easy, but her son is both making social progress and is happily on track to complete his degree with his classmates.  These outcomes were not foregone conclusion as this young man began college, and, for these successes, his parents and grandparents are deeply appreciative of the community that welcomed and embraced this ASD Johnnie.

Artists rendering brainListening to this mom’s story was an obvious reminder of the increasing diversity on our campuses.  As one interacts with Johnnies and Bennies today, there is the obvious racial, ethnic and religious diversity, as well as slightly less obvious geographic and economic diversity. And then there is the diversity that is more subtle and often hidden: mental health diversity, learning challenges diversity and, in the case of the Johnnie described here, neurodiversity.

Each student brings his or her own story to our community and each has a unique mix of strengths, gifts and challenges that are part of their undergraduate journey.  Our institutions have dedicated greater human resources in the form of faculty time and staff positions to help our increasingly diverse students, but this story speaks to a larger truth about how our community welcomes each individual and then makes them a part of the community.  The freshman roommate who likely found his new roommate quirky but accepted him as he was; the faculty member who took a chance on hiring an autistic teaching assistant; and the dozens of others who interacted with the ASD Johnnie in respectful and loving ways, all participated, knowingly or not, in making our community welcoming to this young man.

We may not do it perfectly for every individual, but our lived Benedictine ethos, in the form of many small kindnesses that are second nature to so many, allow diversity to grow and flourish at Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s.

By |January 11th, 2019|Categories: Higher Education, Kudos|0 Comments

Education and a Booming Economy

Arguably one of the most important purposes of post-secondary education is to improve one’s economic prospects.  Economists call this investing in human capital.  There is overwhelming economic research to support the proposition that investing in a college education increases economic returns over a lifetime.  The typical analysis compares the lifetime earnings of a high school graduate to those of a college graduate, and the results are unambiguous: investing in post-secondary education pays a higher rate of return than the stock market.  (See here and here).

downward trend lineBut what if economic circumstances change this calculation? The current US economy has among the lowest overall unemployment rate in nearly 50 years and the lowest rates ever recorded for black Americans and Hispanic Americans.  (See here, here, here, and here )

Recent news stories have reported that many employers, including tech giants Google and Apple, have dropped the requirement of a college degree for entry level employees. Other news stories have reported that recent high school graduates are making six-figure incomes in some industries, including the oil and gas industry.  It is arguable that there has never been a better time for a high school graduate to head to the job market.

Google logo

Should this exceptional economy change the way talented and ambitious high school students consider their college decision?  Their investment in human capital?

I think the answer is unambiguously no.  College remains the right choice for most high school graduates because a college education is not about preparing students for the first job after graduation, it is an investment for a career and a lifetime.

Young people entering the job market may well get jobs with a dream employer and might earn incomes their parents would envy, but when the economy slows down, as it inevitably will, how prepared will recent hires be to weather that economic bump, to say nothing about moving up the career ladder?

It is certainly understandable why employers are seeking fresh talent in this economy and are currently willing to forego a college degree, but Google and Apple are not making any commitments to new hires regarding the future.  They are not promising that long-run retention decisions will not consider educational attainment, and certainly promotion decisions will weigh whether a candidate has a college education, as that degree can signal some important information about an individual’s talents and character.

A young person can certainly go back to college or take courses part-time to get their degree if employment prospects decline in the future, but older students often find it harder to complete degrees if they are not moving through college with their peers or if they have additional responsibilities like a family to consider.

In short, the current booming economy has likely temporarily narrowed the gap between the earnings of recent high school grads and young college graduates, but there is no evidence to suggest that historical trends showing that the gap between high school graduate earnings and college grad earnings widening over a lifetime have changed.

A college education is still a wise investment for most high school students despite an attractive job market because the investment is about a lifetime not the duration of the current economic boom.

A parent recently told me about his daughter’s decision to drop out of college after a year because she felt the education was not needed.  She got an entry level job in a retail establishment.  She found she liked the work and was good at it.  She talked to her store manager about the company’s management trainee program and was encouraged to apply but was also told that a college degree was required to be accepted into the program.  The young woman is back in college with renewed motivation, is doing exceptionally well and her parents are delighted.

The Accidental Mentor*

I first heard about Nancy a couple years ago at a Saint John’s senior dinner.  At the dinner, seniors that are so moved, get up and share the things that they are most thankful for about their SJU experience.  The lists usually include what you might expect: friendships, the monks, social times, great academic experiences, study abroad and relationships with faculty.

But on this particular evening, a senior included an unusual appreciation: “I am thankful to have met Nancy, the custodian on my freshman floor.”  Shortly after this dinner, I heard about a custodian in a frosh dorm who had purchased a dozen haircuts from the old Razor Hair Styling shop in Mary Hall and asked that they be given to random students, ideally freshmen, who seemed to need a little emotional pick-me-up gift–not necessarily because they were looking shaggy.

I realized this was the same woman the senior had praised.

I decided I needed to meet this woman.  It turned out Nancy was nearing the end of her time at Saint John’s, with a long-planned retirement coming this past spring, but we had coffee this summer, and I got to hear her story.

She told me that a number of years ago as she was preparing for her annual performance review she decided to add a new goal: to get to know the students on her floors better.  Nancy did just that during her remaining years at Saint John’s.

There was a young man from Bosnia whom she befriended who shared a Bosnian family wedding video with her.  Another young man visited her family farm where Nancy’s husband taught him to drive a skid loader.  The couple subsequently got to know this student’s hockey teammates and took a group of them out for dinner.  There were multiple students whom she helped with textbook costs, and she even chipped in on an airfare to a New York job interview.  Some of her Johnnies told their young brothers to look Nancy up when they matriculated, and she has attended several Johnnie-Bennie weddings of students she got to know.

Nancy had a policy that if you needed her to unlock your door after you wandered down to the shower without your key, you had to commit to saying “Hi” to her whenever you saw her.  Nancy was eating at a restaurant in St. Cloud with her family when an unfamiliar young man came up the table and greeted Nancy.  She did not immediately recognize him, as he was now 7 or 8 years older than when she knew him at SJU, but he told her she had let him into his room back in the day, and he was fulfilling his part of the bargain.

Most improbably, she developed a relationship with a Chinese student who was often awake in the lounge when she arrived early in the morning.  He told her of his loneliness and complicated relationships with his parent.  He surprised her by making Chinese tea for her one day.  She gently admonished him when he started skipping classes.  He took Nancy and her husband out for Chinese food.  In the end, this young man decided he needed to return home, but Nancy insisted that he text her when he got to Beijing to assure her he was safe.

In some ways Nancy is clearly exceptional—caring deeply for the young men on her floors and making the effort to reach out to dozens of them during her time at Saint John’s. But in other ways, Nancy is just like everyone in this room.  Each of us is capable of being a mentor to the students in our care, students who are all in need of human connections as they make their way through these important formative years at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s.

Nancy did not use the term mentor, and I suspect she would not characterize what she did as mentoring, but I would beg to differ.  A mentor is one who cares about an individual student in the present and is concerned about that student’s future.  Research has shown that this simple human interaction is exceedingly important for the well-being of students on campus and for their thriving in the future.

I would hope that each of us recognizes our ability to be a mentor, but I worry that this is not always the case.

After a presentation on mentoring at the Liberal Arts Illuminated conference this summer I overheard a young staff person say, “I had not thought of myself as capable of being a mentor to students.”  In another context, when discussing our increasingly diverse student body, I have heard faculty wondering about the challenges of teaching and guiding these new students on our campuses.  One senior faculty member noted, “My experiences are so different than those of this generation’s students.”  Students themselves sometimes believe they must find an adult whose experiences have paralleled their own in order to connect.

We can sometimes think of mentoring too narrowly, focusing on the guru model which has students at the feet of an academic master.  While I certainly do not want to diminish our students’ academic needs, young people’s needs are typically broader and require only empathy and wisdom from a caring adult.

Fr. Don Talafous, Mary Hall, ca. 2001

Though they may sometimes be hesitant to reach out, all students want a connection to another person and to a community.  Faculty and staff at CSB and SJU have done this for years, and even with an increasingly geographically, racially, religiously and culturally diverse student body, we can all continue to provide that invaluable human connection, as Nancy did for so many students.

Clearly our 21st century student body is different, and they bring new and unique life experiences to campus, but that is true of every generation.  Yet for many of us in this room, we found mentoring, guidance and connection from what we surely thought at the time were unlikely sources.

S. Margretta Nathe, 1976

If the Benedictine monks and sisters, who publicly made a more counter cultural life choice than any faculty or staff member today can boast of, could serve as powerful and long lasting mentors for earlier generations of students, everyone of us is capable of connecting just as deeply with today’s students.

 

As you meet our students in your classes or offices or elsewhere on campus, just ask yourselves, “What would Nancy do?”  You might be surprised at the relationships you will develop.

Best wishes for the beginning of the school year.

*Presented at the CSB/SJU All-Community Forum on August 21, 2018.

By |August 30th, 2018|Categories: Higher Education|0 Comments