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When Jackson Hopkins first came to Colorado State University, his disability made it challenging for him to adjust to academic life.
When he missed an assignment, he would jump to the conclusion that his professor was angry with him and he was destined to fail. Hopkins also exhibited what were perceived as eccentric mannerisms in response to his sensory needs, such as rocking his body back and forth to help him focus on what was being said in class.
“It was hard for me to picture graduating,” he said. “I was struggling.”
Hopkins, who is on the autism spectrum, ended up receiving individualized help from CSU’s Opportunity for Postsecondary Success Program in the Center for Community Partnerships, part of the Department of Occupational Therapy. Thanks to support from a professional coordinator and a student mentor, now he’s less likely to overreact to bad grades, and his rocking motion is barely noticeable. He’s also less likely to get buried in hundreds of unread emails, because his phone gives him a specific alert when he receives a message. He’s learned other individualized coping strategies, like “wall push-ups,” which release chemicals in his brain that calm him down.
“I just needed someone who would be patient with me and give me tips, like putting a reminder note on my door so that when I walk out I see it,” he said. “They taught me about thinking errors. When you feel overwhelmed, your irrationality goes overboard. They taught me how to identify and reframe my ideas.”
The Center, which provides extra support for students like Hopkins through its Opportunities for Postsecondary Success Program, just received $2.2 million from the U.S. Department of Education to continue and expand its efforts in a new program called CHOICES: Creating Higher-Education Opportunities for Individualized Career and Employment Success.
The five-year CHOICES project, funded by the DOE’s Office of Postsecondary Education, is a partnership with the Poudre School District, Front Range Community College, the Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, CSU’s Resources for Disabled Students office, the CSU Division of Student Affairs and others. The project will be led by Cathy Schelly, director of the Center for Community Partnerships, along with CCP Assistant Director Julia Kothe, who will serve as the CHOICES service director, and occupational therapy Professor Patti Davies, who will serve as the project evaluator.
Through CHOICES, students with autism spectrum disorder, brain injuries and other complex needs will receive individualized mentoring and support as they pursue postsecondary education and secure employment. The project will also include a research component to measure how well participants attain their goals and develop self-advocacy skills.
“The goal is to get students to the point where they don’t need us anymore,” Schelly said. “The students benefitting from OPS support are young adults who, six or seven years ago, may have gone to college but likely would not have persisted or graduated, especially if the right supports were not available to them.”
Beginning next fall, expansions to the program include a new year-long “Empowerment Course” offered through CSU Online to non-CSU students with disabilities who are transitioning out of K-12, to provide them with the training and education necessary to go on to community college or a job. That course will include an academic component, as well as cover person-centered planning, inclusive socialization and relationships, self-advocacy and leadership skill development, and career exploration.
The CSU Athletics Department is providing students in the Empowerment Course free tickets to campus sporting events, and Pi Kappa Phi fraternity members have offered to accompany participants to the contests, Schelly said.
There will also be a new “Bridge Program” launched next fall in which new CSU students served by CHOICES will be able to come to campus a week before classes begin, connect with their professional coordinator and student mentor, and become acclimated to college life — everything from meeting their professors to becoming familiar with their new living arrangements.
“If we can help students to be more relaxed and prepared, they’re a step ahead in the game,” Schelly said.
“We’ll get them settled in and chart their course, so they’re ready,” Kothe added.
Of the hundreds of applicants for the DOE funding, the CSU program was one of only 25 chosen, and one of only seven that saw its existing funding continued. The previous DOE grant was $1.4 million over five years, and the program always has a waiting list of students in need.
“The demand from parents for the services we provide is so high,” Schelly said. “And our students are graduating and going on to jobs and being successful.”
Activities funded through CHOICES will include working with the University of Wyoming as it determines how to replicate the program for the state of Wyoming.
As for Hopkins, the Broomfield native is poised to graduate in December with a degree in applied computing technology, and he wants to be a computer technician.
“I love solving problems when things go wrong,” he said. “It’s like working on a puzzle.”
Hopkins has already interviewed with Oracle and has submitted his resume to several other potential employers.
“I don’t know if I would have gotten through without this program,” Hopkins said. “I have a hard time imagining what I’d do without it.”