Campus Links participants toss a tennis ball over a drum during a
workshop presented by Artists Creating Together.
Members of Campus Links attend weekly meetings in addition to
check-ins with their mentors.
At left, Josh Dunigan from Artists Creating Together demonstrates
proper drum techniques during a Campus Links workshop in the Kirkhof Center.
Campus Links members are pictured from a past Make a Difference Day
event at Wellhouse in Grand Rapids.
A unique university program focused on supporting students on the
Autism Spectrum celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.
Campus Links, housed in Disability Support Resources,
is a peer mentoring program that matches students on the Autism
Spectrum with student mentors. Mentors help mentees navigate
university resources and adjust to college life in and out of the
classroom. Mentees can choose to live on campus with their mentor or commute.
Kathleen VanderVeen, associate vice president and deputy chief
inclusion and equity officer, said the two-tier system with options
for on- and off-campus living, makes Campus Links unique.
"We were one of a very few programs in the country to offer
on-campus living with resources and support for neurodiverse
students," VanderVeen said, adding assistance to establish Campus
Links came from a START
Project grant and many campus partners.
Ten years ago, VanderVeen and other campus leaders noted both an
increase in the number of Grand Valley students who identified
themselves as neurodiverse and a lack of established campus resources
to support them.
"There was not really any support on campus designed for their
unique challenges. Traditional accommodations for students with
disabilities did not seem to meet the needs of neurodiverse students
and we were not retaining them," she said.
Since its inaugural year, 160 students on the Autism Spectrum and 72
mentors have participated in Campus Links. Shontaye Witcher, director
of Disability Support Resources, said 23 participants have graduated,
including four in the Winter semester.
"We're proud of all of our students but especially proud when a
Campus Links mentee walks across the stage during commencement,"
Witcher said. "They formed connections with other students on
campus and built relationships that they might otherwise have
struggled to pursue."
Madie Boufford is a first-year student from Spring Lake and said the
program helped her feel more comfortable on campus. Boufford and other
mentees check-in regularly with their mentors and attend weekly Campus
Links group meetings, in addition to accomplishing other program
"I've met other people and it's been nice having a mentor and a
peer group," Boufford said.
Staff members from Artists Creating Together, a Grand Rapids
nonprofit organization, are frequent visitors at Campus Links group
meetings, leading music or art lessons. Disability Advocates of Kent
County is also a partner, and Witcher said the work behind the scenes
could not be done without help from multiple university departments.
"Through training and understanding, we have enhanced our
collaborations with campus partners, such as Housing and Residential
Life, Public Safety, University Counseling, Dean of Students and the
Career Center," Witcher said.
Mentors come from varied academic disciplines. Jorden Couture, Campus
Links graduate assistant, said many students have siblings or family
members who are neurodiverse.
"A lot of mentors are from what I call the helping majors, like
education or physical therapy," Couture said. "Any student
who has a passion for working with students with disabilities is
welcome to apply. This role really equips them with a set of skills to
showcase, and also gives them a lot of empathy."
Mentor Madison Adair is an exercise science major who was accepted
into Grand Valley's occupational therapy program. Adair was searching
for a way to be more involved on campus.
"This has been a good experience, being able to help someone and
to be a friend and listen to them," Adair said.