Campus Links celebrates 10 years of supporting students on the Autism Spectrum

June 14, 2022 (Volume 45, Number 18)
Article by Michele Coffill

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 requirements.  

"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. 

Read more about the Campus Links program.

 

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This article was last edited on June 14, 2022 at 12:39 p.m.

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