Monday, July 27, 2015

A Spectrum of Highs and Lows in College: Accommodation, Education, and Socialization in Undergrad

I left my previous post about my college career in a second start to school. The first six months of undergraduate education was spent on medical leave pending adjustment to the academic and general living rigors of higher education. It was not how I wanted to spend the majority of my freshman year, but it was what it was. It forced me to re-evaluate what I wanted and what I wanted was confidence to prove I could handle college. So I returned to northern California with a steely determination to make it through upper academia far from familial support and create the best undergraduate experience possible.

How did I do? Pretty damn well considering that previous hiccup.

First, I needed to establish new supports. After inquiring about psychological services at school, I found they only offered emergency therapy situations as opposed to weekly sessions. My parents found a great therapist in town who I saw once a week to relate my struggles to, and she'd support and challenge me to make the most of college life. Then my parents and I found the disability services center and convinced them to give me guaranteed single-room on-campus housing for the next four years. (That was a miracle considering students tended to be pushed off campus after two years.) And living on campus meant having a meal plan I could rely on, even if it meant gaining a lot of weight in the process. Having those in place helped immensely gain some kind of certainty that some things were fundamentally taken care of.

Next, I had to get through classes. I tended to be the kind of student who loves challenging myself, so I often took more than the average amount of classes offered. I'd sign up for the classes I needed, crash the ones I wanted, and made a point to visit the professors after almost every lecture or during office hours. I went to a large state school with large classes so stopping to talk to professors wasn't easy. Yet doing so made me stand out as someone who wanted to be there and interested in the course. And in the case of crashing classes, I ended up making the final roster most of the time. I'd also let the professors know about being autistic and we'd arrange between the two of us appropriate academic support (namely extra time on tests or assignments as needed). I ended up doing pretty well as a result - receiving a series of Bs and As throughout all four years.

I'd like to take a minute out to say I got really lucky with the professors I had. I didn't meet any resistance from any professor I encountered when disclosing my autism to them and getting the help I needed. I want to say that's because I developed a script that placed those things in how I could largely take care of my issues myself and was willing to adjust to what expectations were required. (It also helped that my particular professors tended to be pretty amiable as a whole.) Honestly, if I had encountered someone a lot less willing to accept and accommodate me, I probably would have dropped out of that class. I didn't need to stress myself out over my learning if I didn't have to. Plus I generally refuse to engage with someone who'd just make my life harder as a rule of thumb.

The hardest part was establishing a social life. I found most people established their friendships during the first year that lasted throughout their college lives. Thus having spent half the year away from my college peers did a lot of damage on that front. It's always been a nerve-wracking process to make and solidify friendships, and I lacked the ability or nerve to look up social groups and opportunities on campus to fix it. I had a lot of lonely nights as a result - I spent a lot of time on the internet, going to movies and exploring campus by myself, and crying by myself or on the phone with my parents about how isolated I was. I went to way too many movies by myself.

That's not to say I didn't have any social life. I joined the school's drama department after taking an acting class and being cast their student drama festival my sophomore year. I've always loved acting  (I'll go into that in more detail about that later) and being in a play allowed me to spend time away from solitude in my dorm room and interact with people outside the classroom. I loved the cast I was with and the people involved in the festival, leading to declaring a drama minor alongside my history major. Being a theater minor allowed me to take more classes in a field I loved and working on plays both on and offstage gave me excuses to hang out with people outside of class. (Although I learned pretty quickly that I was not cut out for stage management - the pressure was too high.) And that old stereotype of theater kids being an offbeat crowd meant my autistic self was welcomed with little to no question. It definitely made college life a lot more bearable.

But the long-term friends I gained came from the random chance of my major. Being a history major meant you had to pick out one of three concentrations (mine being European history) and the wide selection of classes meant that you were probably unlikely to run across the same people twice. And yet by chance the two friends I still keep in touch with came from sharing multiple classes with them. Both girls were history majors (an obvious commonality), both shared my love of politics, and both were incredibly easy to hang out with and accepting of my quirks. Both currently live nowhere near me - one's in northern California, the other just moved to Texas - but I still call and message them pretty frequently. So many of my friendships with my fellow college students were restricted to the time we spent in class together, but these two girls have proven to stand the test of time by being more than willing to take me as I was and keep up with me past whatever circumstance brought us together. And I cannot be more grateful for that.

By the time I graduated in 2009, I largely felt like I had largely achieved what I set out to do. I not only survived college after a noticeable early bump, but I managed to make a good deal out of the college experience. Could I have had a better social life? Yes. Could I have gone to some more events and joined more groups on campus? Yes. But I got my college career and felt like I had truly accomplished something great. I proved to myself and everyone around me that I could set a lofty goal for myself and achieve it.

And if there's anything I feel most proud of in college, it was my semester abroad in the UK the fall of my senior year. But that's another post in itself.

No comments:

Post a Comment