Can you tell us a bit about your history and personal experience helping students with learning disabilities on their path towards college at University of Denver?
I have worked with students with learning disabilities at all levels of education. Before coming to the University of Denver I was a learning disabilities specialist at a college. When I saw the job opening here it was like a dream come true. The position was exactly what I was looking for. I applied and was offered the job of Director of the LEP, which is a program for students with learning disabilities, ADHD, on the spectrum, or a history of learning differences. We provide academic support to students at the University of Denver. I am personally called on several times a year to provide presentations on the transition from high school to college for both students and parents. Transition can be a scary time for both students and parents. As part of our assistance with transition, we have four cornerstones in LEP that we believe are important to students as they go through the college experience: self-awareness, self-advocacy, self- determination, and accountability.
What do you tell students who don't believe they can attend college with a learning disability?
I tell them that the most important thing is to find a college that is a good fit for them. They need to choose a college with a supportive and welcoming disability services office and they need to find a college that also offers a support program to help them reach their goals and be successful. They also need to choose a major that speaks to their strengths. I am honest with them and let them know that learning material may take them longer and that they may have to use strategies and techniques that are different than other students. But if they are willing to put forth the effort and use the resources available to them then they can be successful.
What are some common misconceptions about learning disabilities and education?
I always have a hard time helping people understand what I do. They think I work with students with low IQs who are not smart enough to go to college so we have a “special” program for them. People do not understand that students we work with are extremely intelligent and they are admitted to college on their own merit just the same as every other student. They also take the same classes, complete the same requirements and major in the same areas as other students. They just need information presented in different ways so they can understand it, or they need strategies to help with working memory, the time it takes to process the information, etc.
Should students be up-front with universities about their learning disability during the application process? Or is this something students should bring up after they have been accepted and plan to attend that university? What are some strategies you have seen students successfully use to address their disability with universities during the application process?
I believe they should be up front from the beginning. I encourage students to take the opportunity in their essays to tell their stories, to explain their challenges and also their strengths, to share what they have been able to accomplish in their lives and how they have gone about doing so. They should talk about the self discipline, time management, etc. that has helped them become successful.
If you could give one piece of advice to students with a learning disability applying to college, what would it be?
Visit the college. Talk to people in the disability services office and people in other support services programs. Find out how welcoming they are and whether or not they are willing to spend time talking with you. Ask questions about accommodations. Be sure that both the support programs and university as a whole are good fits for you.
What do you feel are the most important attributes or characteristics a student with learning disabilities should consider when selecting a university experience and why?
They should consider how open the university is to diversity and that learning differences are part of their definition of diversity. Students should pay attention to the accessibility of a school's disability services office location and the availability of staff. Students should also consider if a support program addresses and supports their specific needs. Will they have access to the resources they will need to succeed? The size of the college or university is also important. Will the student thrive best on a large university or do they need a small university with smaller classes? Does the university offer the student's area of interest? Are there activities on campus that the student would like to be a part of? Will the student thrive better close to home and away from home?
If a student does a campus tour, what are features they should be looking for? What are some questions they should consider asking the university?
I addressed some of this above. They should pay attention to the layout of the college. Are there any accessibility concerns for the student? The tour guide is usually a student, so you can ask them about their experience. Set up appointments beforehand to talk with someone in the disability services office, the support services program, the area of their major, and any other resources the student may need to use during their studies. You can also ask about study spaces on campus.
Are there any barriers that the students you work with commonly experience once they start college? Things they weren't prepared for? Things their peers didn't seem to be experiencing?
The ability to manage time is very difficult for most of our first year students. In high school, they have a schedule with one class after another and then homework with a parent to usually oversee that process. In college, a student may have only 2 classes on one day and they see all that other time as free time, when actually it is not free. There is homework to do, projects to work on, etc. We do a weekly calendar with our students and block off class time, other events or activities, and at least 20 hours a week for study time.
The pace of the 10-week quarter can also be a challenge. We do a 10-week calendar with our students where we put down test dates, due dates, activities, etc. so that we can help them chunk out big assignments so they are completed on time. Students will come in the first week or so and be totally overwhelmed because they have gotten all their books and the syllabi from all their classes and they are wondering how they are supposed to read all those books and do all that work. We remind them that they have 10 weeks and we will use their calendars to guide them through the process.
How do you suggest a student addresses stigmas that may be associated with learning disabilities on a college campus?
Fortunately, this does not seem to be a big problem on our campus. However, occasionally it does come up. It is usually due to a lack of education and understanding. We coach students on how to talk to other students about their disability. They do not need to disclose their diagnosis, but can explain the impact on their lives and on their learning. We also hold workshops for faculty and staff to give them a better understanding of disabilities and how we work with students.
Overall, we do not experience a stigma as a campus. Our campus is very welcoming to students with disabilities. Our disability services office serves nearly 1,000 students and our Service Learning Effectiveness Program reached a record enrollment of 340 students this year.
Jimmie SmithDirector, Learning Effectiveness Program, University of Denver
Education is my career of choice and working with students with learning differences is my passion. I have worked in the field for over 40 years in the K-12 system as well as at colleges and universities. I have a bachelor of science in psychology, a master of education with post graduate work in educational leadership and a specialization in learning disabilities. Currently, I am the Director of the nationally-recognized Learning Effectiveness Program (LEP) at the University of Denver. This is a fee for service program that provides academic support for University of Denver students with ADD/ADHD, learning disabilities, on the spectrum, and with a history of learning differences. We reached an all-time high enrollment this year with 340 students. I have had the honor of speaking at conferences, symposiums, and college fairs across the country and in British Columbia. I have been published in the “K and W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences” and I had a chapter published in a book, “On Line College.” My chapter was entitled “ Universal Course Design and the Construction of an Online Curriculum.” I was interviewed and quoted by U.S. News & World Report and I have written articles for the Learning Disabilities Association. While in Washington State I was chosen as one of sixteen educators from across the state to participate in the first cohort of a Leadership Academy program to train future leaders. I am now in my dream job. I totally believe in the LEP and what we do to assist students and families. I am originally from Fort Walton Beach, Florida. My husband is retired military so we had the opportunity to travel a great deal and lived in Europe for 11 years. In my spare time, I like to spend time with my family, especially my 4-year-old grandson, and I love to travel.