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    Sunday, April 21, 2024

    How Mitchell College helps students with learning differences

    Mame Diarra Abdur-Rahman, who has autism and dyslexia, hands Nola Poblette, 9, of New London, her ice cream Wednesday, June 21, 2023, while working at Michael’s Dairy at Mitchell College. Abdul-Rahman is taking part in the Summer Earn to Learn Program. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Mame Diarra Abdur-Rahman, who has autism and dyslexia, works Wednesday, June 21, 2023, at Michael’s Dairy at Mitchell College. Abdul-Rahman is taking part in the Summer Earn to Learn Program. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    New London ― Mitchell College has a way of bringing people back.

    Mame Diarra AbdurRahman started here as a sophomore in 2020, when classes were virtual, but decided to leave school. She went back home to Oakland, Calif., where she helped at-risk homeless youth through Youth Spirit Artworks, a nonprofit she had been involved in for years.

    But AbdurRahman wanted to further her education, and she returned this past school year.

    “At a typical college, I would’ve just drowned, and so having a place with accommodations and things in place to help me succeed, that’s also why I came back,” AbdurRahman said.

    As someone with autism, dyslexia and processing issues, she goes to Mitchell’s Bentsen Learning Center three times a week during the school year. And Mitchell celebrates her creativity ― such as her poetry ― which she says goes hand in hand with her learning differences.

    As of the Spring 2023, about 1/3 of the private college’s more than 500 students are neurodivergent or have learning differences. AbudrRahman likes that the school integrates “people with more of a disability with people with less of a disability.” But the school prides itself on being a national leader in supporting neurodivergent learners, such as those with autism, dyslexia and ADHD.

    But what does that look like in practice? And how does it benefit students who might have otherwise thought they couldn’t succeed in college?

    AbdurRahman, 28, said when she took a break from Mitchell, she was diagnosed with autism, which came after a previous misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder.

    Experts agree that autism is under-diagnosed in girls and women, and AbdurRahman ― who is Black ― said “because of the color of my skin, I was labeled as as a drama queen or someone who couldn’t control their emotions.”

    A psychology major with a minor in criminal justice, she wants to advocate for other people “who are silenced and labeled.” She wants to be a therapist in restorative justice, which focuses on communication and healing between the person harmed and the person accountable.

    This summer, she has been working at Michael’s Dairy as part of the Summer Earn to Learn Program, a pilot initiative.

    It gives students job experience, includes financial literacy workshops, and provides housing, said Alicia Martinez, dean of student experience and belonging at Mitchell. The program ― which is not just for neurodivergent students ― also has workers in facilities, campus safety and student affairs.

    “You’ll hear a lot from higher education, ‘We’ll meet students where they’re at,’” Martinez said, and then institutions instead meet students where they think they should be at. But she said “at Mitchell, we really do meet them where they are.”

    The message is that “you as your authentic self are welcome here,” Martinez said, “but we will not place an identity on you. You tell us who you are, and then we work with you to show that to the world.”

    Part of that is helping students get jobs. Martinez said while there’s a lot more acceptance in the world, neurodivergent people still face more challenges getting past an interview, and employers could miss out “on what could be a dedicated, loyal and effective employee.”

    She said just because some people absorb information differently, it doesn’t mean they’re incapable of absorbing it.

    Bentsen Learning Center

    Bentsen Learning Center Director Alice Murallo said once students are accepted to Mitchell, there’s a separate application process and fee for the BLC, an academic skills and support program.

    Students have the option of going to a 45-minute, one-on-one session with a learning specialist one, two or three times a week. Murallo said students set goals at the beginning of each semester, and the type of support provided each semester may change based on a student’s classes and academic strengths.

    Areas of focus can include self-advocacy, study skills, writing support, research, and technology. Murallo thinks the biggest focal point is executive functioning, which includes skills such as time management and organization.

    “We’re teaching our students to use their unique minds to understand themselves,” she said. A lot of it is about helping students believe in themselves, and Murallo loves seeing the “a-ha moment” when students realize it’s not a sign of a weakness to ask for help.

    Communications major Josh Tucker, who is entering his senior year, chose Mitchell because it’s close to home in Warwick, R.I. and because of how the BLC helps students with disabilities. He spent his sophomore year at Landmark College in Vermont, which is designed for people with learning differences, but decided to return to Mitchell.

    Tucker, who has autism spectrum disorder, said he meets with his learning specialist two or three times a week to discuss requirements for his courses and how to prioritize work.

    Outside of the classroom, Tucker is a vice president for the Campus Activities Board and a lead student ambassador, giving tours to prospective students and families. Tucker, 22, thinks he wouldn’t have gotten the same leadership opportunities at another college.

    Thames at Mitchell

    Murallo said the BLC is for students who are college-ready, whereas the Thames at Mitchell program is for students who are college-able but not college-ready. The vast majority of Thames students go on to utilize the BLC.

    Thames at Mitchell is a pre-freshman transition program in which students take a mix of credit and non-credit classes, with credited classes applied toward earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Introduction to College Writing and Financial Literacy are credit classes, for example, whereas The Math Experience and Social Seminar are not.

    The program includes accessibility accommodations, such as speech-to-text technology, extra time on tests, and access to notes. Assistant director Ron Samul said it also teaches students how to take notes, communicate effectively in class, and be active in a college community.

    Samul said he hears all the time that students didn’t think they were cut out for college or couldn’t succeed. But Thames at Mitchell students go on to get a degree from Mitchell or transfer to another school, which may be the case if Mitchell doesn’t offer their program of interest.

    Many students go into criminology, hospitality, communication or science at Mitchell, and many have become preschool or kindergarten teachers, said Beverly Scully, director of Thames at Mitchell. The program has roughly 50 students per year.

    So, how do participants hear about it in the first place?

    Scully said there’s word of mouth from parents of alumni, and the admissions department “does an excellent job going out and presenting our program to different high schools.”

    One member of the admissions team is Johnathan Atkinson, a Mitchell College alum. Like others, he left and came back: Atkinson spent a year at SUNY Potsdam.

    Atkinson said he thought he got everything he needed after one year at Mitchell, “but that’s not how it worked. After not having any support, such as the Bentsen Learning Center, I came back.”

    Atkinson, who is dyslexic and playfully says he “can’t spell to save my life,” said the BLC gave him structure and helped hold him accountable.

    He thinks a universal part of the Mitchell experience is “people at Mitchell know who you are. They know when you’re messing up and when you’re doing well.” Atkinson said he “was able to come out of my shell and be very involved,” such as becoming a resident assistant, student ambassador and student orientation leader. And he met his fiancee, Tifereth Lambert, at Mitchell.

    Atkinson, 31, got a Master of Education degree from Bridgewater State University in December, while working at Mitchell.

    Atkinson said he previously worked as a resident director at other colleges but “always wanted the opportunity to come back to work at the place that gave me the opportunity to start my career.”

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