Colorado State University Students with Autism, Aspergers and Traumatic Brain Injury get Partnered with Other CSU Student Mentors

More than 100 Colorado State University students fall somewhere on the spectrum of autism and Asperger’s syndrome or have experienced traumatic brain injuries. A $2.3 million grant to CSU now gives these students an opportunity to learn to navigate academic and social situations with the help of fellow students.

“This grant will help us develop a program to help students who struggle socially – and as a result, academically – because of their disability. It will provide them with one-on-one guidance and encouragement through a student mentor who will provide them with peer support,” said Catherine Schelly, the principal investigator on the grant and director of the university’s Center for Community Partnerships.

The grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education was awarded to the university’s Center for Community Partnerships. The project, called Opportunities for Postsecondary Success, is funded through the grant for five years and Schelly plans to establish it as a long-term service.

The Opportunities for Postsecondary Success — called OPS — project will pair students with disabilities with student peer mentors who will help them navigate nearly any challenge that is holding them back from academic success. Student mentors will spend 30 – 40 hours a semester with students enrolled in the program. Student mentors often will be CSU graduate students seeking occupational therapy degrees. The program will give them an opportunity to gain experience in their field of study, but student mentors from other majors also may participate, particularly if it is beneficial to pair a student enrolled in the program with a mentor from his or her major or one who lives in the same residence hall.

Participating students also will be coached by professional staff in the Center for Community Partnerships. The student mentors and staff will help them with time management, study skills, compensatory strategies, career exploration, effective communication, forming relationships and learning to advocate for themselves in the educational setting.

Schelly said she hopes the availability of the program will help eligible students with disabilities who struggle through the social aspects of college be more successful. The Department of Occupational Therapy, which houses the Center for Community Partnerships, has tried the program — with great success — on a smaller scale for several years through a mentoring course taught by Schelly.

“The challenges these students face are often not academic, but do impact their ability to be successful — such as how to live with a roommate in a residence hall, how to communicate effectively with a professor, and how to make friends and get connected. Many students with these disabilities are lonely — on a campus full of people,” Schelly said. “Based on our experiences, once participating students with disabilities receive intensive support and guidance through this program in their early college years, most will ultimately become independent in all aspects of their lives and experience success as a college student.”

Schelly anticipates that students will use their mentors for learning where and how to study, connecting with campus and community resources, organizing their study spaces and rooms in a way that works for them, meeting other students, participating in college and community activities, and forming friendships. Mentors may even attend classes with students enrolled in the program to help them through the social and communications processes.

Front Range Community College students also can participate in the program, as can Poudre School District students who will enroll at Front Range or CSU. Students with disabilities will get connected to the program through CSU’s Resources for Disabled Students and the Division of Student Affairs. Front Range students can access it through the Student Disability Office.

The grant will provide scholarships for up to 33 students to receive assistance through the program each year, with a fee being charged for additional students who apply after scholarships are awarded.

“There is no doubt that if we put the right supports in place, these students can be successful,” said Schelly. “In fact, I highly expect that, with the right support systems in place, the majority of participating students will graduate from college and go on to have successful careers.”

Partners are Front Range Community College, where the project will also be implemented, and the Poudre School District, where eligible transitioning students with disabilities will benefit from mentoring and guidance as they pursue their postsecondary goals.

OPS team members at Colorado State include the Center for Community Partnerships; Patti Davies, an occupational therapy professor; the Assistive Technology Resource Center; Resources for Disabled Students and the Division of Student Affairs. Bitsy Cohn, at Front Range Community College, the City of Fort Collins Adaptive Recreation Opportunities program, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, Poudre School District and Foothills Gateway are other community partners.

A key collaborator and professional mentor for the project is Temple Grandin, a professor of Animal Sciences at CSU, who is a highly functioning person with autism known nationally and internationally for her success.

The Department of Occupational Therapy is in the College of Applied Human Sciences.