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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

Thanksgiving at Saint John’s

students celebrate ThanksgivingThanksgiving has become a contested holiday. Some historians argue that the Thanksgiving narrative encourages “stereotypical and racist portrayals of Native peoples” that are “ahistorical.”  Critics urge that Thanksgiving be decolonized and de-romanticized, especially in elementary schools.

students celebrate Thanksgiving Certainly the academy should welcome challenges to the prevailing wisdom in all disciplines.  Academic freedom, the bedrock of the university, encourages, and even requires, that students and faculty challenge themselves to examine different perspectives and test their ideas and beliefs against alternative views, regardless of how uncomfortable such an exercise can be.

And yet…there is also a time to step back, to lighten up.

Monks help at Thanksgiving dinner

To take turkeys and cranberries and Indians out of Thanksgiving and to make the Pilgrims racist colonizers is to take the pleasure out of the holiday for children, and, most importantly, it is to miss the most important message of the holiday: Give Thanks.  Historians can reengage in the debate about the historical details and interpretation the Monday after.

At Saint John’s last week we took time to remember that central message.  In a tradition dating back 37 years, Saint John’s Dining Service and Events staff undertook the formidable task of feeding 1635 Johnnies, Bennies and SOT graduate students (up over 100 from a year ago), approximately half the total student population at CSB/SJU, in three sittings, which of course necessitated turning around the dining areas twice.

The menu included:

248 turkeys or 3224  pounds–boned, rolled and tied turkey used in an effort to prevent waste and to help prevent novice student carvers from cutting themselves (!)
50 gallons of turkey gravy
625 pounds of potatoes
262 pounds of corn
210 pumpkin pies

Students celebrate ThanksgivingMost importantly and generously, the Dining Service had over 100 faculty, staff and monastic volunteers who helped serve the students.  These individuals took an evening away from their families and communities to tell our student how much they appreciate and care about them.

The event started as a Saint John’s event, but its popularity led to inviting Saint Ben’s students to join the festivities.  In an interesting nod to gender difference, at least among 18-22 year-olds, Johnnies are given a three hour head start when tickets are made available to ensure that all young men that want to attend are able, even if they are not quite as organized and forward looking as their Bennie friends! 😊  The Men’s Chorus stopped by to serenade the diners.  Naturally groups of friends attend together, as do sports teams and other students who have common interests.  I chatted with several international students who, despite not having grown up with this holiday, said they, “Loved this dinner” and have attended every year.  I even observed some couples that looked like they were on a date.

Students celebrate Thanksgiving

The atmosphere of joy, community and thanksgiving was palpable.

Thanksgiving blessings to the members of the CSB and SJU community.  Thank you all for making this community the special place it is.

By |November 21st, 2018|Categories: History, Kudos|0 Comments

Scenes from a D3 Football Game, SJU vs. Thomas More University

Image gojohnnies.com

The game starts gray and cold. The temperature is in the low 20s, and there is a noticeable breeze. Light snow is falling, but the weather forecast says it shouldn’t last. Alas, the weather forecast is wrong, and the snow picks up. By late in the second quarter, the field is white.  A guy with a shovel on the sideline keeps running out every few plays to clear a two foot wide path so the players can see the goal line.  The teams play on, oblivious, even seeming to enjoy sliding tackles and diving for passes, cushioned by a few inches of powder.

Half-time arrives. Every November, during the football game closest to Veterans Day, we honor the services of men and women in the Armed Forces. We invite an active duty alumnus back to be honored and to represent all the alumni and fans who have served.  This year, the brigadier general waits quietly on the sideline as time winds down.  Once the second quarter ends, many of the Johnnies, rather than heading right for the locker room on a chilly day, take a detour to shake this alum’s hand and thank him for his service.  He is surprised and touched by this gesture.  Later that afternoon, he leaves his alma mater feeling uplifted and hopeful for the future.

Image Jennifer McNelly

The field is now covered in snow, and the athletic director and assistant director have a problem. They have to figure out how to clear the field during halftime.  Shovels are rounded up and handed out to a small crew of student workers.  And then, a bit like the parable of the loaves and fishes, other students, attending as fans, come out of the stands and ask for shovels too.  The group – including many practiced Minnesotans – sets to work, and the field is clear by the time the players return. The athletic staff are tickled pink.  Burgers and brats are rounded up to feed the crew, and the hungry students think they’ve been fed at a Michelin two-star restaurant.

The final gun sounds, and the two teams make their way across the field toward each other. Suddenly two or three Johnnies are on the ground, on their backs. Those in the press box look at each other perplexed.  Then they smile. The players are making snow angels on the field.

Image @ccarrIX via Twitter

The stadium is largely empty as two visiting fans make their way through the home team’s bleachers.  The visiting team came over 1500 miles on a bus, and these visiting parents drove almost that same distance.  Had the game turned out differently, the visitors might have had a chance at making the playoffs, but these parents are not disappointed. They had gotten to see their son play his last college football game in a beautiful setting.  As they moved toward the exit, they said that their son had always wanted to play a game in the snow, but since his college is in Kentucky, that had never happened, until today.  They think it was a sweetly fitting note on which to end his college career. The offensive lineman’s father says, “We will be cheering for the Johnnies in the playoffs. It would be great for our son to be able to say that his last game was played in the snow against the eventual national champions.”

Image gojohnnies.com

One of the Johnnies is interviewed about the game.  After some questions about the playoffs, he is asked what it was like to play in these weather conditions.  He smiles delightedly and says, “It was like being a kid again and playing snow football in your backyard.”

How many D1 football players had as much fun in their games before tens of thousands in the stadium and hundreds of thousands of TV viewers? I’d venture to say not very many.

By |November 13th, 2018|Categories: Alumni, Kudos|2 Comments