In addition to living away from their parents or guardians for the first time, having to make new friends, and navigating an unfamiliar institution and processes, new college students with disabilities also must seek out the support services they need to succeed, even if they’ve never before had to advocate for themselves. It can be a frustrating and isolating experience that sets students up for failure.
At McDaniel College in Maryland, students with disabilities who register with the Student Academic Support Services Office can access fee-based support beyond just reasonable accommodations. There are three enhanced support programs, offering everything from interactive workshops on disability-related topics to weekly meetings with academic advisors, who help students with whatever difficulties they may be experiencing.
“We noticed that there was still something missing,” said Melanie Conley, the SASS associate director. “Despite all the support we offered, some students were really struggling during that first year, and the missing link was the transition to college.”
Speaking with students with disabilities about their past experiences and hearing from parents confirmed that. So SASS administrators decided to create a short bridge program, called McDaniel Step Ahead, which offers incoming freshmen and transfer students with disabilities a chance to acclimate to the college environment before other students move in for the fall semester.
The five-day, early-move-in program is available to students registered with SASS. It ends as first-year orientation begins, and focuses on equipping students with the academic, independent living and social skills required to live in college, said Dana Lawson, the assistant director of McDaniel Step Ahead and an academic counselor at the institution.
After securing support from the college leadership, Lawson and Conley worked with the institution’s advancement office to secure funding. The parents of an upper-class student who wished their child had been offered access to such a program as a freshman provided a contribution to fund the program for three years.
The Step Ahead program, which is staffed by SASS staff and graduate assistants, was launched in 2012. That first year, students wishing to participate paid just $100 for the program. The second year, the cost was $250 per student. However, those who couldn’t afford it received scholarships.
Students who signed up for the pilot were invited to connect with each other and ask questions on Facebook during the summer. They also received a call a couple of days before the program started to make sure they were ready. When they arrived on campus, they got welcome bags that included a branded T-shirt, a refillable water bottle, snacks, and a binder with all the paperwork they needed, such as their fall-semester class schedules, important policies and procedures, SASS resources, and handouts to be used during the bridge program.
After students got settled in, a luncheon gave the parents a chance to spend some time with their children before saying “goodbye.”
Over the next few days, students took part in workshops on a variety of topics, including classroom etiquette, time management, study and test-taking skills, and organization. They also learned about the institution’s honor code, different learning styles, and assistive technology available to them through SASS. Students toured various campus facilities and heard from administrators of different service units. And they participated in “College 101” skits on topics such as managing stress.
Activities designed to promote bonding included a visit to a farmer’s market, an ice cream outing, and a movie night. Toward the end of the program, students took a trip to Target to purchase any class or dorm supplies they still needed.
As things wound down, students got the chance to do their laundry and clean before other students arrived on campus. The program ended with a scavenger hunt, a picnic, and an awards ceremony where students received awards such as “Best Thinker,” “Best Team Player” and “Happy Attitude.” They also got their accommodation letters.
Evaluations completed by 25 students at the start and end of the 2012 pilot helped staff gauge student learning. They showed that most students had significantly increased familiarity with the resources available to them at the institution. Students also felt they knew how to communicate with professors; understood what constitutes acceptable classroom behavior; realized the role their disabilities play in their learning; and had made friends on campus. Meanwhile, 90 percent of their parents reported their children’s transition to college was “good,” “very good” or “excellent,” and all parents said they would “definitely” recommend the program.
Despite that, program staff felt they could do better. At the end of the spring 2013 semester, 71 percent of pilot participants were still enrolled at the institution, but just 67 percent were on active status. Changes were made for the fall 2013 program.
For one, assistive technology training was made a much bigger part of the curriculum. That way, students feel more comfortable using the tools, which are available at the SASS office. And that, in turn, gets students to visit the office more frequently so that if they were experiencing problems, they were more likely to tell staffers.
Another significant change was the creation of a peer mentor program. The peer mentors were Step Ahead participants from the pilot year who were in good academic standing and in good standing with the honor and conduct board, or other students registered with SASS in good standing who program staff felt had the qualities needed to be good mentors.
The role of the mentors was to help connect incoming students to the campus, teach students about ethics and boundaries, create understanding of students’ roles and responsibilities, and prepare them for both Step Ahead and the academic year. In exchange for serving in that role, mentors received a $100 stipend and two internship credits. An intensive weeklong training prepared mentors for the job.
The mentors connected with Step Ahead students before they arrived on campus. They participated in the five-day program with students as a way to bond with them and address any issues immediately as they came up. They also helped with activity planning. In addition, mentors attended short debrief meetings at the end of each Step Ahead day, sharing insights and concerns with program staff. And after Step Ahead was over, mentors stayed involved in students’ lives, first offering to eat lunch with them in the cafeteria so they didn’t feel self-conscious or isolated, and then checking in with them periodically throughout the semester.
“We thought that was important because we found that the first time around, after we gave students their accommodation letters, we sometimes didn’t hear from them again until being notified of their withdrawal,” Lawson said.
Those strategies paid off. The 35 students who participated in the 2013 program were still enrolled a year later, 90 percent were still in active status, and, of those in active status, 96.3 percent were in good academic standing.
Program staff is now working on how to keep the program going without that initial contribution, and how to keep the program small as more people hear about it and demand grows.
Use these tips to create bridge program
Want to create a program like McDaniel College’s Step Ahead to help incoming students with disabilities get better acclimated with your institution and campus living? Conley and Lawson offer the following suggestions:
- Create a detailed program proposal. Include a proposed budget. Outline the proposed curriculum, plus explain how the curriculum addresses students’ needs and common skill deficiencies. Talking to upper-class students could help you determine what areas your curriculum should focus on. Address what role assistive technology will play in your curriculum and why.
- Gain institutional buy-in. Find administrators from other units that you think would support the idea, since you will need their help to incorporate resources and information from their office into the program. And help your top campus leaders understand what the program could do for student retention to get them on board.
- Find start-up funding. Work with your advancement office, since staffers from that unit may have good ideas as to what donors or potential donors may be interested in funding such a program.
- Determine your staffing needs. Some of your existing staff may be able to help with parts of the program, but more likely than not, you’ll also need additional help. Find out where that help may come from.
- Identify relevant institutional policies. Consider any policies and/or procedures that may apply to any aspect of your program, such as those from your residence life department and those dealing with transporting students off campus.
- Make fun a key component. Don’t make your program all about learning. Find ways to get students to have fun so they can bond, which will help in their retention later on. Find out where current students like to hang out in your community. Consider activity costs and transportation issues when planning outings.
- Engage students before, after program. Social media and brief phone calls before the program starts can ensure participant readiness and nip any potential problems in the bud. Plus, engagement with students after the program ends creates a bridge between your program and the rest of the semester.
- Consider whether to use peer mentors. While you may not be able to employ peer mentors for purely financial reasons, a built-in mentoring program can make a big difference in immediate student engagement and long-term retention. If you decide to use mentors, determine up front how many you will employ, how they will be selected, how you will compensate them, what their responsibilities will be, and what training they will need.
For more information, you may contact Melanie Conley at firstname.lastname@example.org or Dana Lawson at email@example.com.