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Solutions for Life

Just as high schools and elementary schools need to take the initiative in addressing learning disabilities, so too must colleges and universities, where the number of students requiring special attention is rapidly increasing. In fact, a national study by the American Council on Education reports that in 1998, 9 percent of full-time college students had disabilities — up from less than 3 percent two decades earlier — and that 41 percent of those cases were classified as learning disabilities.

Federal law, though, only mandates special education services as long as students remain in high school. Afterwards, says Teresa Montani, assistant professor of education, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 require that students receive “reasonable accommodations,” but support programs are not mandated. While many institutions of higher education recognize this need for ongoing support for their students, few universities provide the comprehensive services offered by FDU’s Regional Center for College Students with Learning Disabilities.

“It started with a state grant for training faculty and staff to work with students with learning disabilities,” says Mary Farrell, who developed the program and has been the director since its inception in 1986. “That led to a request for a proposal to develop the center.” Fairleigh Dickinson has been funded by the state ever since. Beginning as a program for the Teaneck-Hackensack Campus, the Regional Center expanded to the Florham-Madison Campus.

“It is a comprehensive support program for students with learning disabilities who qualify for admission.”
— Joel Dickstein

According to Joel Dickstein, campus director of the Teaneck-Hackensack Regional Center, “It is a comprehensive support program for students with learning disabilities who qualify for admission. It assists them through specialized instructional support, personal and career counseling and academic advisement and helps them obtain reasonable accommodations.”

Students must be admitted to the University before applying to the Regional Center. The admissions process is very competitive. “We had 265 applications last year for about 45 seats,” says Vincent Varrassi, campus director of the Regional Center at Florham-Madison. On the two campuses, the Regional Center currently serves 120 students.

“For students to be successful in our program, they need to have had the majority of their academic classes in regular education,” Varrassi explains. “The other thing we look for is an indication from teachers and from students themselves in their application that they have perseverance. Those two things are as important as their SATs and grade point averages.”

Once admitted, freshmen attend a special orientation session in June when they come to campus for the standard placement testing. In addition they attend another Regional Center session during freshman orientation in August. “This session is geared toward advising students in terms of courses of study, program expectations as well as the general issues that can come up for a college student with learning disabilities,” says Dickstein. Academic advising is available throughout the program to help individuals match their course load to their learning needs.

Joel Dickstein advises students and the Regional CenterIn September, new Regional Center students undergo evaluation to confirm the type and extent of their learning disability and to determine what accommodations they can receive at college, such as extended time for exams, books on tape and the use of tape recorders.

Each freshman takes a two-semester course in Metacognitive Strategies or learning about learning. Students gain skills in areas such as time management, note taking, learning language and remembering. They then apply these skills throughout their college studies. “For instance,” says Varrassi, “in reading a textbook there are particular techniques — previewing the chapter before reading it and generating questions while reading — which make reading a lot more efficient and enable students to get through the material more quickly and to remember it longer.”

In addition, Regional Center freshmen receive up to four support sessions a week, usually one for each academic course they are taking. These sessions provide learning strategies particular to the class work involved, such as ways to remember formulas for calculus. Each freshman also attends a counseling session once a week to deal with the various issues that arise in adjusting to college. After the first year, these sessions are voluntary and are used less frequently as the student becomes more self-reliant.

“We’re trying to encourage students to take greater responsibility and really advocate for themselves as they go through college,” says Dickstein. For example, Regional Center staff members make the initial contacts with professors for freshmen and sophomores regarding their needed support and accommodations. In contrast, juniors and seniors take the initiative and select the professors they would like inform.

“In high school, their teachers often provided supervision and assistance. Now they’re entering a situation where they’re independent, so we really have to work on that transition.”
— Joel Dickstein

The Regional Center is there to guide students with learning disabilities through the transition from high school to college and prepares them to make a potentially greater transition from college to the working world. “For high school kids, going for extra help is not fun,” says Varrassi. “That attitude changes in college. They confront the reality of what they need, and that it’s okay to need it.”

“In high school, their teachers often provided supervision and assistance,” adds Dickstein. “Now they’re entering a situation where they’re independent, so we really have to work on that transition. We hope that as they progress through the program the students will become more realistic about their demands, more attuned to how they’re going to meet challenges, and ultimately more self-reliant.”

The success of Regional Center students has been “extremely gratifying,” say both Dickstein and Varrassi. Nearly one in three Regional Center students is named to the Dean’s List; five students have been selected for the Fairleigh Dickinson University study abroad programs; two graduates have been honored with the Student PINNACLE award; and alumni have gone on to graduate programs at institutions such as Columbia University and New York University and have succeeded in careers as varied as teaching, nursing, social work and business.

“Our students develop a real comfort with who they are and what they need,” concludes Varrassi. “It helps with planning for the future and helps with life in general.”

— R.M.

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