Beacon College: Helping Neurodivergent Students Succeed, with Drs. George & Oksana Hagerty | EDB 270


Beacon College’s president Dr. George Hagerty & director of their Center for Student Success Dr. Oksana Hagerty share their work with neurodivergent students.

(VIDEO – 33 mins) Dr. George Hagerty if the president of Beacon College, and Dr. Oksana Hagerty is director of the college’s Center for Student Success. Beacon College, a private nonprofit college founded in 1989 in Leesburg, Florida, is the first accredited institution of higher learning designed with curriculum and support services to serve those students with dyslexia, ADHD, or other specific learning disabilities. They offer Associate of Arts and Bachelor of Arts degrees in Human Services, Interdisciplinary Studies, Computer Information Systems, Psychology, and Business Management. It is regionally accredited through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and is licensed by the Florida Department of Education.

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To view Dr. Reitman’s honorary doctorate presentation and commencement speech, visit the video on Beacon’s YouTube channel





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DR HACKIE REITMAN (HR):  I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman, and welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains. And it’s not every day I get to have a couple of my heroes on here. This is George Hagerty, the president of Beacon College, where every student has an opportunity and all their brains is different than they’re wonderful. And they’re all smarter than me. And his lovely wife Oksana who is in her own — well, actually, you know, Giorgio is lucky to be with her because she really carries the ball and he takes a lot of the credit but George and Oksana from Beacon College up there and Leesburg, Florida. Welcome to Exploring Different Brains.  

DR OKSANA HAGERTY (OH): Thank you, Hackie.  

DR GEORGE HAGERTY (GH):  Thank you, Hackie. Great to be here.  

HR:  Well, I was so lucky to be able to give the commencement address up there. Yeah, terrific students. And, and I’m, I was so humbled to get my honorary PhD there. And you guys were terrific.  

GH:  And, you know, your your remarks were spot on. And we’ve had many highly positive responses, whether they’re, they’ve been in emails or they’ve been in phone calls. And we’re actually going to package yours. Jhilika Kumar’s has speeches with one that was from two years ago. That is, was done by Senator —  

HR:  Harkin, the man who introduced the Disability Act.  

GH:  Yes. And, and we’re going to speeches that you should know about. And we’re going to put it as a as a Trinity. And we’re really looking forward to putting that out on our YouTube channel.  

HR:  Oh, I’m, I’m honored to be in that crew that Jhilika was terrific with her, you know, all that software she’s making and everything else. And boy, what a what a bunch of what a whole terrific culture you have up there of helping everybody achieve their full potential? And what a what an all star cast you have up there. So congratulations on all you do.  

GH:  Thank you. And thank you for being part of the 2022 commencement.  

HR:  Well, thanks. Now, why don’t you guys introduce yourselves properly to our audience, so that they can learn all about you?  

GH:  Sure — I’m George Hagerty, and I’m the president of Beacon College have been for just about nine years. I have a background in special education, and started my career in special ed, worked for the US Department of Education. And then went back over to higher education and taught at Stonehill college, my alma mater, and my other alma mater, Harvard University, and then became a university president Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire. And at that time, I recognized so that was from 95 to 2009. At that time, I recognized that we were all making promises at universities that we had specialized centers for individuals that had learning and attention issues. But that they weren’t well staffed. And so the promises that may have been made could not be fulfilled. And and I was always concerned about that. Subsequently, Oksana and I moved to Greece and Italy, and stayed in higher education, we wanted to walk the talk of International Education, and, and in Ukraine, as a matter of fact. And when we came back to the United States, this was the position that we thought was most conducive to both of our careers. And especially the the marriage of the teaching of students with learning and attention profiles with higher education. And so that’s how we came to Beacon.  

OH:  I joined the college a year after my husband and I was working as a learning specialist here for six years. And then I became the assistant director of the Center for Student Success where all learning specialists work. And now, this is the end of my second year as the director of the Center for Student Success. My background is in educational developmental psychology and really a chance to work at Beacon and the unique institution that it is in a chance to work with these students who come to Baking is such a professional luck for me as an educator as a developmental psychologist, because I can see all these developmental profiles and learning patterns. And it’s amazing to be able to do it.  

HR:  Tell us about your recent wonderful adventures in Ukraine.  

OH:  I’m from Ukraine, originally, I was educated from doctoral level in Ukraine. As a matter of fact, I got my doctoral degree from Kharkiv National University, and I’m sure almost everybody saw the footage of Russian bombings of Kharkiv National University, it was personally quite painful, because it was exactly the building where I had my defense. So I don’t know what was the reason to bomb the psychology school. But there was a reason probably. So we are from Ukraine. I’m from Ukraine. And when it all started, on February 24, we, for a week, we were in a total disarray, we didn’t know what to do. And then I do have my entire family’s back there, my parents, my sister, and my other sisters family. And so we decided that we can do something meaningful as all of us and I know so many people here in the country who also do many, many meaningful things. And we wanted to be to do something. And so we traveled to Romania, to pick up my two nieces and nephew, and we are here in the United States right now. And it’s a very strange time when you stop learning and stop dreaming. And so for now, we’re just trying to settle in to see what comes next. Because that’s truly a very unusual time. Very,  

HR:  I had the pleasure of meeting your nieces who are just terrific and are already blossoming here. And it’s such a shame what’s been going on in Ukraine. And that’s a whole ‘nother discussion. But we’ll, we’ll turn our focus back to Beacon College here. It’s so heartening to see a vision become a reality. And you guys have this vision for what became college could become. And it’s been becoming that, okay, I met all of these young people going into all different walks of life, their hard work done their education gotten in this fully accredited college. And so everybody’s brain is a little bit different. And that’s what we want to get the whole world to realize, just so everybody’s brains a little bit different. So you give them what they need.  

GH:  And as you probably saw at the commencement, our commencement of our very celebratory and very emotional, and you’ll see that the audience for 86 graduates is much larger than you might guess, 1000 people. And the reason for that is it’s not only the mom and dad who comments, not only maybe the grandparents, an aunt or uncle, maybe some siblings, but it’s also the first grade teacher who believed in that student. It’s also the minister who really kept the family moving forward in a positive way. And so you see a real, a really beautiful support system that had flourished beforehand. You see them all celebrating together at one time.  

HR:  What would you say is the most challenging aspect of what you’re trying to achieve with Beacon College?  

GH:  Part of it is the reality of the environment that we find our ourselves in, I would say nationally, but it’s not just nationally, it’s globally — Oksana and I’ve had the privilege of traveling to many countries. Since we’ve, we’ve been here. So it really is a world wide issue. And that is that students with learning and attention issues, and in this I include students who are on the autistic spectrum. Unfortunately, many of them get second. Lots of promises, but the system just doesn’t have the resources and very honestly many times not the level of training the personnel need until they get second. And when that happens, parents ends students show up with out a lot of confidence in the educational system and the in the educational systems ability to deliver on the promises that are made. And so part of what is very important at this institution is that we keep our promises and one of the promises that we have as we want our students to have first. So, coming to Beacon, it’s not a learning disability college. It’s a college where we specialize in. And I’ve totally devoted to students who have learning disabilities, ADHD, Autistic Spectrum Disorder, we are strictly devoted to instruction and the wraparound services necessary for them to have a successful collegiate career and then go on to what we call the abundant life. So I know this is a bit of a long answer, but part of it is the confidence building that you have to do in at least the first semester and many times the first year, many times it doesn’t, a student doesn’t get traction until 18 months into it. But it really is, it really is the most important foundation for beacon college to do its work to get parents and students feeling the confidence that they can succeed in college. And it makes all the difference.  

HR:  Very interesting, because confidence is underrated. Confidence can really make a big, big difference. I tell our interns here at different brains, when we start our internships at 18. When they’re going for interviews, like in medical school or law school, I say look, you’re you’re going to be smarter than the person interviewing you. And they are going to be insecure because most of us people are insecure by nature. So I want you to make them relaxed by smiling. Because if you look Stern, you’re gonna make him nervous. And I put them in that hole hits that, look, you’re smarter than the person who’s interviewing you. Now, being smart, as I told students had begun is nothing to be proud of. That’s a God given thing. You know, but what do you do with it through hard work through your interests, through trying to help other people to make yourself a good living? While you do what you love doing or want to try to learn doing? All of that is wrapped into the culture that I experienced up up in Beacon College. Everyone has given that confidence that hey, I can do this. And I can do whatever I want to do and the list of career paths as I met the different graduating students was amazing.  

GH:  And I think part of that started four years before with the on ramping of the students and I’m doing all the talking. I’ll let Oksana address this but certainly we use universal design. In learning in our classrooms. We teach multimodaly. We also keep the classes small so that the attention can be somewhat individualized to our students. So our classes do not exceed 15 students. Wow. But it’s also the and by the way, it’s not a watered down curriculum. It is the curriculum were fully accredited. And we have been since 2003, the same way that any institution with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools is accredited original creditor. But it’s also the model of wrapping around these students not to do the work for them. But to keep them guided in moving forward moving are constantly moving forward. And part of that comes from the Center for Student Success which Oksana is now the Director of work talk a little bit about the four year model.  

OH:  Yes, as an educational psychologist and that — well I worked all my life in high education, I never worked anywhere else. And to me higher education is very much about partnership between a student and a professor. And that’s why I’ve always been uncomfortable about the fact that pullout services which are absolutely necessary for elementary or middle school students are being used at a college level because I believe if there is anything we should do for the students, it’s not to pull them out of the classroom and explain the same thing but twice, but rather bring them back into the classroom so that they could interact as a colleague, as a partner. I was a professor. And during that interaction during that participation, engagement, creating new knowledge, which is the purpose of college education, it’s not so much about remembering and understanding, like reason secondary schools, it’s more about evaluating, analyzing, creating, applying. So it’s a very different form. These are very different forms of thinking. And for that you need a partner and it shouldn’t be achieved or somewhere outside of the classroom and the resource room, students need to be brought brought back into the classrooms. And I think this is the big difference. And this is the major big difference because the magic is happening in the classroom, not outside of it. My sense is very important, but my purpose and all learning specialists, their purpose is really to help the students be productive participants of the learning process that is happening in the classroom, which is happening. Also during the job interviews, internships, everything that other students may enjoy, enjoy. So we want our students also be able to do it. And there are ways and our faculty are doing a lot of evidence based best practices, education, learning specialists are doing a lot of teaching students how to attend class, how to participate in class how to do the work. But together, we’re creating a perfect college environment in which students feel that they are college students, and productive and successful.  

HR:  And they feel it, you can tell that they feel it, which is a natural segue to how beacon College has dealt with and met the challenges of these COVID times. Want to talk a little bit about that?  

GH:  From February of 2020, to I would say, August of 2020. It was a frightening time, in particular for begun for our Board of Trustees for our faculty for everybody who was associated with the institution. Because we realized fairly early on, when everybody went to virtual learning platforms that we had a virtual learning platform, it’s canvas, it’s really very fine. But our students are in a high tech world. The difference with beacon is that we are also high touch, and many of our students do do not and we have research to back this up many of our students do not do as well in virtual learning environments as they do on campus in the classroom, where they’re part of a larger community where they have immediate, just about immediate access to the faculty and the staff and the residential life staff who can really put them at ease and and keep them moving forward. And so we decided, in April, after taking a look at where we thought our success lied, we decided that we were going to bring our students back. And, of course, there was still a lot of to and fro in the policy environment as to whether that was a good idea whether you should do it or not. But we understood that our students were, we’re not going to be best served by having them virtual learners. We did set up the opportunity for students to return to campus. We had something we called the beacon bubble, which the students became accustomed to, but didn’t like which was basically we closed off the campus environment. We allowed them to be anywhere on campus. We opened it up slowly later on. But that beacon bubble with that beacon bubble, we only had one student case that whole year, which was makeable. And at that time, we had about 435 students now we have 470. But so that worked for us, but we were we were testing new ground because most schools were going totally virtually, we also allowed for students who did not want to come to campus if they and their families made the decision. They did not want to come back to campus. We also allowed them to participate in the class as it was being delivered through a virtual platform. And so what we found was that and we we did some research our students performed who were in the virtual environment per Performed about 10% less effectively than we would have expected. Were they in class, but the other thing that they missed, and we did try very hard to keep the students and families and involved in activities that were virtual activity, so they could be proud. But what they really missed was the ability to work on their executive functioning skills to work on social emotional development. But being part of a community, a residential community, 92% of our students in a given year, are residents on campus. And we really liked that element. Because it’s not only the classroom experience as, as critical as the classroom experiences to all of this, it really is the ability to become members of a healthy community and to add to that healthy community,  

HR:  And to learn independent life skills and be part of the team. Yeah, the, the statistics have not been good for virtual learning. And as with most things, when you add a different brain to the mixed, then it’s like putting it on steroids, whatever that problem may be. And consistently, I find anyway, the most underrated aspect of everything, when it comes to cognitive development, and overall development of the person is socialization. And there’s no substitute for those of us who unfortunately, are isolated and alone, our brains develop differently. And we’re, it’s not good, and you provide the whole structure there. It’s a community. There’s independent life skills, there’s friendships, there’s coaches, there’s everything you could need, and whatever you need, because, you know, it does no good to write on the blackboard, if the student in the first row is blind. It doesn’t make sense.  

GH:  And the other piece in all of this is we’re constantly pushing boundaries. And and all of this deals with what our identity is a competitor, undergraduate college that serves a special profile of learners, and a very diverse profile of learners, by the way. But in doing that, every good liberal arts college has a semester abroad program, this institution didn’t. And we had already looked at the data on the number of students with disabilities who had ever had a semester abroad program is very low, it’s well under 5%, for all disabilities, and it’s about .8%, for those with learning and attention issues. So five years ago, we decided that we were going to put a program in Tuscany, and to give our students first not a bad beacon in Tuscany, and they were in Prato, Italy, which is right, right outside of Florence, we have our own small campus that we run. And so it’s a it’s a full semester abroad program, we take over a beautiful hotel and a medieval city and they have a great meal plan at about 19 restaurants. And every one of those students comes back, just as transformed as any undergraduate would be when they have an experience like that, which makes them learn a lot about themselves, but also really broadens their perspective on the world. And so, in athletics, there wasn’t much in athletics here and many of our students certainly they liked their Esports but many of our students maybe because of their profile, they they really didn’t get actively involved in an athletics where we’re not so much concerned about the W’s and L’s we’re concerned about are the students for first of all staying fit, but second of all, of all, can they participate competitively, both in weather intramurals in extra murals with with club teams outside? Can they do things that they had never done before? So basketball were pretty competitive in flag football, there’s a university league in the self that we get get involved with. And there are a number of other we have a cross country team they get up at 6am every morning and, and and work on that and there are a number of other sports that we are Getting ready to develop at this point and expand them beyond the intramural and, but for many of our students, they’ll tell you this is the first time that I actually knew that I could really play soccer pretty well, you know, do soccer as well. So you, we want them to have, as I said first, and we want them to have the first in a undergraduate liberal arts education. And part of that are all of these opportunities to explore themselves? And what they can do in ways they may never have done before.  

HR:  It’s just fabulous. Fabulous. What do you see going forward with beacons future?  

GH:  That’s a question that is going to be challenging the Board of Trustees here at the college, certainly over the course of the next two to three years, because the reality is the institution 2013 was well under 200 students. And we had a plan 10 year plan to get to no more than 450 to 500. Undergraduates,  

HR:  just on the 20th year of your 10 year plan…  

GH:  where we are a little ahead of schedule where we’ll be at 470. This this, this fall. And we have designed this not to go over 500 students on campus. We’ve developed two other programs that are pre college programs that are highly successful. One is called Navigator Prep, which allows for both parents and students a year before their their first college year to develop, not together but to develop long tracks to prepare them for the rigors and for the, for the expectations of higher education. And it’s a nine month program. And that’s grown from the first year we did it was I think about 30, 35, maybe 50 people and and now we have 220 families and this student in that program, they don’t have to go to Beacon. We’ve had many students who have learning disabilities, who are going on to major universities who still need some of that preparation their parents do as well, because the parents can be anxious. And then we have a program called Summer for Success. And that started with 35, about seven years ago, and it’s a three week residential college experience for juniors and seniors in high school, who aren’t sure whether they want to go on to college, or if they would like to go on to college, they just want to kind of have some initial traction as to what that’s going to be like so that they’re not surprised when they come. And that program this year, we’ve had to stop it at. We’ve closed it out at 130 students that will be this July 130 students from all over the country in a couple of foreign countries. And we have a waiting list right now that’s above 35. I know for that program, had we if we had the facilities, and very honestly, the staff with the kind of specialized expertise that we need, you know, we’re really maxing out both of those things, but they’re great programs. So for the future, we have a couple more buildings to complete an academic center and an indoor recreation center within the next five years. There’ll be completed within the next five years. But programmatically, we’re going to be looking at a review of the of at least two more potential majors. And we’re really at this point beginning our market study, looking at not only what the labor market is and what is expected to be, but also what students and their families are looking for. And that will take place over the course of the next year. And the year after that we’ll begin to take a look at the addition of two new majors for the institution.  

HR:  Yeah, you know, we all forget that that the landscape for employment is changing. It’s not as It’s not a stable thing like it was when I was growing up in the 50s. You know.  

GH:  And very candidly, for now, 15% of our students go on to graduate school. And it’s pretty remarkable for students who were told they may never go to college. But the remainder we have last year, we had an 84%. career placement rate. That’s a good rate. But were more concerned with the depth of the kinds of positions that they’re getting. And I know the current markets in flux. But when parents put their faith in Beacon, they’re also putting their faith in how we can help shape the student’s future. Now, we can’t promise them a job, but we can do everything we can to prepare them for worthy work, and for good citizenship. And so we have a four year career development model built into our curriculum, we have an internship requirement for every student irrespective of major and but this year, we’ve we did a full study of of career development area, not because we weren’t doing well, but because we really refuse to be self satisfied, and we really want to do a really fine job because in the end, it’s a student’s ability to live an independent and productive life and and to make a contribution on their own. That really makes a difference. I mean, I use the line. Our graduates are beacons most enduring legacy. So we want that legacy to be a really rich one. Not only collectively, but for each individual that we admitted at Beacon College.  

HR:  For our audience who want to learn more about Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, where can they learn more about you?  

GH:  You can learn on our website, And we have a pretty robust website where you can learn everything you would like to know about not only our program, but also our outcomes and some of our ambitions for the future.  

HR:  Well, George and Oksana, it’s been a pleasure to have you both here again at Exploring Different Brains. And we hope you’ll be back and become regulars. Keep up the great work you’re both doing at Beacon College. Thank you so much.  

GH:  Thank you, Hackie.  

OH:  Thank you, Hackie.