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How to Engage College Students With Learning Differences

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Today's guest post is written by Andrea Neal, Executive Director of Special Programs at Fayetteville State University.

Statistics have shown that more students with learning differences (LD) are entering college campuses, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Students with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury, anxiety, and students on the autism spectrum are overcoming their fears of college and striving towards their degrees.  As a higher education institution servicing a diverse population, Fayetteville State University (FSU) strives to make success a reality for all of its students.  However, success isn't easy to achieve for everyone; and its redefined everyday.  FSU realizes the need to continuously diversify its offerings in order to meet the needs of its growing student body. FSU welcomes this demographic and does all that it can to provide the necessary support.  

Bronco STAR is a unique program offered at FSU for students with learning differences. Bronco STAR was implemented in 2015 and has proven to be a valuable source for hundreds of students. Tamilla Green, a military veteran, credits Bronco STAR for getting her through school after having brain surgery.  "I am a living testimony for what this program has done for me.  I have recovered from brain surgery; and I know that this has helped me," said Green.  There are several others who express the same appreciation for the program. 

Bronco STAR is a part of College STAR (Supporting Transition, Access, and Retention: A UNC System Project Supporting Students with Learning Differences), which is a collaborative project designed to enable participating universities (Appalachian State University and East Carolina University) to help our campuses become welcoming environments for students with learning differences.  We are comprised of two major components: Component A, which provides direct support for students with learning differences and Component B, which provides instructional support through targeted resources and activities for campus faculty and staff grounded in the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Together, these components were designed to strengthen FSU's capacity to create conditions that will improve student success and address retention of students with learning differences.

Our program is open to both students who have been identified by a professional assessment and those who have not been diagnosed, but find themselves facing learning challenges. Due the level of inclusiveness, campus-wide integration of Bronco STAR is imperative. This cohesiveness weaves together a network that creates stronger programming across the board for all students, especially those with learning differences. We not only services those with LD, but we have identified several non-traditional students with other challenges such as PTSD, traumatic brain injury, anxiety, and students on the autism spectrum.

Our students require a complete team effort and everyone involved with the student must be committed. The program offers STAR Champions and Peer Learning Assistants (PLA). Champions are liaisons trained to recognize characteristics of those with LD and refer students to us. Peer Learning Assistants provide in-depth training in effective tutoring practices, UDL, and work with students with learning differences before the academic semester begins.  Furthermore, they each participate in monthly tutor training conducted by the academic success coach.

We understand the importance of providing a welcoming and inclusive environment.  Our students and staff meet and work in the Bronco STAR H.U.B. (Here You Belong).  It is painted and decorated in vibrant colors, which release positive vibes for the students.  It is the place where students come to access formal support resources, gather in informal groups, and create a strong sense of community. Over time, the H.U.B. area has become a resource for recruitment with parents and middle/high school students who visit FSU.  In conjunction, our Bringing Out Our Students' Talents (B.O.O.S.T.) summer camp encourages middle and high school participants to use higher-order thinking skills to manifest their ambitions into strategic plans that will propel them into success. The most notable attribute of the camp is the desire to break stereotypes related to students with learning differences. We hosted 25 middle and high school students for the inaugural B.O.O.S.T camp in July 2016; and looks to welcome 30 students this upcoming summer. 

Bronco STAR participants are assigned an Academic Success Coach, who conducts regular check-ins on academic performance, attendance, and additional supports.  Students also participate in monthly academic workshops with topics such as learning styles, note taking, time management, and organization skills. Our students also participate in Possible Selves training, a strategy designed to increase student goal-setting skills and motivation.

Bronco STAR isn't just about academics; it's about building a well-rounded individual.  In an effort to enhance socialization skills and encourage a sense of community, we host a "Fourth Friday" after-five program. On the last Friday of each month, the students and staff gather for a fun activity, which may include a karaoke, festivals, and game night. These events make the Bronco STAR students and staff feel like family. 

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College is possible; and success is waiting on the other side of the graduation stage.  Click here to learn more about Fayetteville State University and Bronco STAR.

Opening photo courtesy of Shutterstock. 

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