New campus program will team mentors with Asperger students

GVL / Eric Coulter
Amy Matthews, Direcor of the Autism Education Center

Eric Coulter

GVL / Eric Coulter Amy Matthews, Direcor of the Autism Education Center

Morgan Miller

Starting this fall, Grand Valley State University’s Disability Support Resources will embark on a new pilot program, Campus Links, which will pair five GVSU students with Asperger’s Syndrome to a peer mentor who will live with them and help them navigate through the social aspects of college life.

“The idea came after a conference,” said Kathleen VanderVeen, director of DSR. “The keynote speaker suggested that college campuses needed to think outside the box when deciding on programs to help students with Asperger’s. A group started meeting who work directly with the students and the idea was formulated.”

DSR teamed up with Housing, Counseling and Career Development and the Autism Education Center to construct the program’s model.

Amy Matthews, director of the Autism Education Center and Statewide Autism Resources and Training said students with Asperger’s need different social and emotional support. Mentors will help them with daily aspects such as managing time and checking on their progress in classes, as well as involving them with the campus community.

“The mentor will maintain regular contact with the student to promote a positive college experience,” VanderVeen said.

Students and mentors will live on the first floor the G building in Laker Village, a one-person living unit that shares a common living space. This way, the students can have their own space, but still have the option to come out to the communal area to socialize whenever they want, since having a roommate can be an extra source of stress for many students with Asperger’s.

Campus Links has already lined up four mentors for the fall. This summer, mentors will undergo a two-day training session where they will learn how to give support and feedback to the students, learn information about Asperger’s and go through resident assistance training that includes CPR, conflict-resolution and problem solving lessons.

Matthews said that the mentors are very excited to start the program in the fall.

“They’re already emailing asking if we can start planning, start organizing, and figure out how we’re going to make this work,” she said.

Mentors must be at least of sophomore standing, have two letters of recommendation from a professional reference, knowledge of the campus community and a minimum of a 2.8 GPA. Although psychology, education and sociology majors are encouraged to apply, DSR considers applicants of all majors.

GVSU is the first and only college in Michigan that has this kind of “mentor housing” program. Matthews said though there have been programs that have put some additional support in place for students with Asperger’s, there has yet to be a program in Michigan that consists of students and mentors living in the same unit.

On a national scale, many programs tend to focus on “adult-service providers,” but not enough on peer mentors. Campus Link will be unique, Matthews said, since it will be very heavy on mentors guiding the students through social aspects of college.

“I think the peer mentors are really critical because I don’t know much about campus life as another student would,” she said. “I’m not going to help them intergrade. It really needs to be someone their own age.”

If the program is a success, Matthews said she hopes that the program could expand to the second floor of the G building in Laker Village or even extend to other on-campus housing based on students’ preferences.

“I anticipate that it will work well,” Matthews said.

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