Program at WMU helping students with autism prepare for life on campus

Program at WMU helping students with autism prepare for life on campus

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) - A program, now in its second year, at Western Michigan University is helping to prepare students with autism for life on a college campus. The Summer Transition Program places high school students in dorms for the summer, and they even take college courses.

The program is a collaboration between the Autism Services Center on WMU’s campus and Michigan Rehabilitation Services. Leaders with the Autism Services Center say only 17% of high school students diagnosed on the autism spectrum attend a four-year university. It’s their goal to increase that percentage here in Michigan.

High School junior Olivia Rockwood and senior Zach Czinski both agree the idea of studying for college courses and living on campus is daunting. That anxiety is even more pronounced because both Olivia and Zach are on the autism spectrum. They say being a part of the Summer Transition program is reassuring them that they can succeed in college.

“It’s great just to be around the college atmosphere and meet people, and make new friends,” Zach said.

In 2016 the program hosted six students from across the state. This year 20 students were enrolled, and there’s already interest for 2018.

Coordinator Kourtney Bakalyar says the program is a rare chance for high schoolers to actually live like college students.

“They’re living in the residence hall. They are taking three credit WMU courses for credit,” she said.

While on campus the students learn time management, social skills, and they’re even given paid jobs as receptionists in academic offices.

“I deliver and look at mail, seeing where it goes. I file things like graduation stuff,” Olivia said.

All the skills combine to help them make that transition from high school to college. Zach says the paid employment on campus is a huge resume booster.

He says there’s, “A feeling of freedom, independence. Being able to learn on an actual college campus that I never really thought I’d be on.”

Olivia came all the way from Traverse City Central High School, and says being a college student for the summer is an exciting challenge she appreciates. She hopes she’s accepted to Western one day, and this experience will give her the confidence to apply.

“I think all colleges should do this,” Olivia said. “Because without it I don’t believe I’d have an easy time transferring to college.”

“Sometimes they don’t realize that they could go to college, that it’s a possibility for them to be successful” Bakalyar said.

The program lasts for seven and a half weeks. They can choose from four different college courses including psychology and political science.

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