Supporting Neurodivergent College Students, with Drs. George & Oksana Hagerty of Beacon College | EDB

Beacon College’s Drs. George and Oksana Hagerty discuss how they support neurodivergent students.

(32 mins) Dr. George Hagerty if the president of Beacon College, and Dr. Oksana Hagerty is a learning specialist and academic advisor there. 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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Meeting Drs. George & Oksana Hagerty

HACKIE REITMAN (HR): Hi, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman. Welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains. Today, we have coming to us from Leesburg, Florida, two people who are running one of the best schools. If your brain is different you want to talk about Beacon College. And we got with us here: the Hagertys!  

GEORGE HAGERTY (GH): Greetings, Hackie.  

HR: Now, why don’t you each introduce yourselves properly, George and Oksana? Because you’re such a dynamic duo couple, I don’t want to mess it up.  

GH: Sure. I’m proud to serve as the President at Beacon College. And the journey to Beacon started out when I was 19 years old, and I was a very rough student in college. I actually was supposed to be liberated and I got a disease of the retina, which kind of forced me to become more far more disciplined in my life. And I had an interest in disability as well as in education in the financing of these programs. So I got out of college, Stonehill College, and went on to the Harvard Graduate School of Education. And the same time I was doing that, I was working Boston School Desegregation. And at the same time that that was happening, we had our first efforts in special education in the state of Massachusetts. So I got a real exposure to the complexity and diversity of education. I went on to do a postdoctoral fellowship at what was called the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped, and stayed on when the Bureau converted over to the US Department of Education in 1980. I became a program officer and then a branch chief. And after eight years, I’ve decided I wanted to go back into higher education. I did so and also ran a consulting firm on special education policy that was successful. We had 26 state clients trying to work on the initial policies. So my whole life has really been involved in the in the policy and finance arena of special ed. Ended up going on to a University Presidency, did that for 14 years and then my wife and I traveled overseas for 5 years. And when we decided to come back, we found this beautiful little college where Chun-Li had 187 students at the time. And thought it had a mission like no other, which I think we’ll talk about later. So that’s how I came to be, and Oksana…  

OKSANA HAGERTY (OH): I came to be joining my husband. But my joining this field started quite a long time ago. And I’ve always been interested in education. And my Doctorate Dissertation 15 years ago was about gifted children. And this was my first experience of working with non-neurotypical individuals. And so when I came to Beacon 6 years ago, this was probably the most rewarding professional experience because I got the chance to explore educational developmental psychology when it comes to working with individuals who worked differently. And I absolutely love it here and I got to use a lot of knowledge and skills and I get to know much more about the human brain was ever taught about it.  

Beacon College

HR: Tell us about Beacon College.  

GH: I think the best way to to talk about this is I’ve been on the regulatory teams for the development of what was then called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which has since become the it was the foundation for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that really serves students pre-k through 12 now as a federal law. And I was on one of the regulatory teams that dealt with students with learning disabilities. And we were really focused on getting this law into place. Getting it appropriately standardized and regulated. We knew there was a certain percentage of the population that could go to college and could do college work and when we were– I can remember sitting in some of those meetings saying, “Then what? Then what for these students?”

Well in 1989 a group of parents, one year before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is the is going to have its 30th Anniversary this year. But they founded an institution, a four-year institution, receives state approval, and after the first year had about 37 students. And the idea behind this was that they had sons and daughters who they knew could do college work but higher education institutions were not prepared to work with their forms of neural diversity. And they started Beacon. And the college has transformed. First of all, the overall mission has not changed at all. But, the institution has been transformed from one major to seven majors and four separate tracks off of those majors. It’s a liberal arts based institution. And what we have attempted to do over the last five or six years is to create an institution that really has not existed before. A rigorous liberal arts institution fully accredited, which we are by the Southern Association, which focuses wholly on the profile of learners with learning disabilities, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorder. And to do that, we teach multi-modally in in the classroom. So Universal Design in learning is very important to us. But we also have another feature that is absolutely critical and knows a wrap around services. And we do not lead students by the hand, but what we do is we guide students to keep them on track so that we can have the kinds of student outcomes that we have. And I’d probably ask Oksana to talk about the learning specialist model.  

OH: Learning specialists are educational experts working with students individually. And we have weekly meetings with our students to talk about their progress and about their feelings about their studies. But the most important thing here is to really make sure that students meaningfully engage, that they don’t escape, don’t avoid, that there is no anxiety, there are no panic attacks. And we need to make sure our students engage in learning. Because most of the conditions our undergraduates have conditions that make them unavailable for learning. So we need to make them available, and there are different ways to do it. Provide systems, provide choice, explain, brainstorm with them, do not do the work for them. But do the work with them. And so, this is what we do when we find this function very important. It’s not tutoring, it’s not homework helping, it’s very different. It’s really promoting the engagement with academic work, and it takes many different forms, but I think it’s very successful there at beacon.  

What students are right for Beacon College?

HR: One statistic that caught my eye and learning about Beacon College was that you only accept, I believe 58% of the students who apply?  

GH: That’s correct.  

HR: Amplify on that.  

GH: Yes, if you if you put us up on the scale of selective, this institution’s considered a selective institution with that 58% number. But what we’re looking for is something very different from what many other institutions will be looking for. They’ll be looking for the highest SAT scores, the best performance in in the high school curriculum. Certainly we welcome that. But what we’re really looking for is the profile of a student who may struggle because of one of their profiles– ADD, ADHD, LD, ASD and who appears to have strong motivational skills to do undergraduate work. And we require an interview with the student and certainly that the family comes along and we really tried to have individual students and the families understand that what we are here is a fully accredited liberal arts institution without water down curriculum that has a particular design that works well with students. But only if they’re motivated and the other feature that I think that we we need to recognize too, is that this profile of this student has commented issues–depression, anxiety, OCD. And many times, these are issues which further make these students unavailable for hopeful learning. So, first year is a very important year, for several reasons. And the student is assigned to a learning specialist even before they come to the institution and there are several functions.

First of all, we recognized some of these students require gap learning because what they receive in case of K-12 may not have been as robust as it should be for a college education. That’s a detriment to the students who can do the college work, so we work on that. But there are a couple of the features. Executive function is very important in these institutions, so socialization of these institutions, of these students within our community is enormously important. And the last feature which can be a bit controversial is our need to pull the student away from the parents. And we certainly understand that neither parents have been the major advocate for our students but our job is to put them through a rigorous four-year program and on the back and to have them truly independent when they were worthy of a college degree. And to do that, we have a system that we believe works. And when I came and interviewed, I had never heard of Beacon. And I told my wife, it’s a small school but it’s got the best mission I’ve ever seen and I think it has a lot to teach American higher education. But if you look at the national figures, our students graduate in 4 years at close to 70%. Our persistance rate is way up in the 80s and our post-degree employment after 6 months after graduation is 83.5%.  

HR: Wow!  

GH: So, for this population’s profile of students who very often do not receive the kind of work, both academic work as well as those socialization skills, because a lot happens outside of the classroom too. Those are the real features that I really do think makes a difference.  

Parenting neurodivergent college students

HR: We as parents are kind of paralyzed a little bit, because we love our kids so much, we want to do for them, we want to make them be successful and you getting into the issue of the hovering, the over managing, and all the other things that we as parents do not do as well as a compassionate third-party. Let’s put it like that. You’re giving us the message that less is more.  

GH: So two things that we’re doing that really track here because we do recognize that we’re trying to put parents out of a job. Basically and for the most part they all wish for that and so two things that that we’ve done in the last three years we started concentrating on emerging adulthood, including for the training of our own parents on these students are going to change. They are going to change dramatically and what can you do in your home. In the family life that you have, that’s not only going to help them emerge into full-fledged adulthood, but also to understand it and accommodate it. And that’s a very important feature, and very honestly most undergraduate institutions should be concentrating on this as well. The other things that we’re doing with very interested we’re very interested in college entry, and persistence and the reason is because if you look at the national numbers, and there are not a lot of of the national databases on the national longitudinal transitional study but that was in 2009 to show how students enter. How they persist in the numbers and those aren’t pretty at all. With students who have learning and attention issues. It’s just not pretty.

Last year we beta-tested a program called Navigator prep with a gentleman Alex Morris. When he came to us about a year-and-a-half ago and navigate to prep is an 8-month preparation for entering college. They don’t have to come to Beacon and they can go to any other institution that they want to. The idea these families and these students struggle mightily even before they get to the college and they desperately want for this to succeed. So to do that Navigator prep has two tracks, and those two tracks that are at the same time that we’re working with the student particularly on socialization issues, which are where many of them fall down and really have difficulty, but also academic issues, with socialization issue. We also have a track at the same time in the track is a bit separate but at the same time we have it for the parents and what we found from the first years. We wanted to beta test at 15 and we had to close it at 50. And in this year were probably going to try to do only 75 but there’s a huge need for this and it’s precisely so that the parents can understand the process the son or daughter is going through. How they can help by really starting to back off and allowing the students to make their own mistakes and to feel somewhat uncomfortable with with change.  

Battling stigma

HR: What are your thoughts on the stigma attached to people with learning differences and how do you address that?  

GH: You know that is that is the ultimate hurdle for not only for the individual but for society. The society reinforces the reason that we’ve chosen to create the institution that we have a strong little odd college first, and then dedicated to the profile of these learners. And the second, I have had a rough history in special education and I’ve seen more than enough evidence that these students always get second. And I want for these students to have first and certainly the stigma that would be associated with going to an LD college. In short, we are not is absolutely understandable because of what’s the one thing that all of the students have and their ambitions for themselves is to be just like everybody else just like everybody else. So the creation of an institution, that does not see them as different from the way that we structure the curriculum, it is a very traditional liberal arts institution, is one major step we believe in the stigma of whether you would attend an institution like Beacon. And our students, once they get here and are part of a community. Let’s remember many of these students have been marginalized previously. Haven’t had a lot of friends, their peer groups have been relatively small, they may not have been great athletes because of some of the issues that they may have. They may develop a little slower than others. So providing something that is exactly like other first grade institutions. I really think that’s a way that we can deal with the stigma, the societal stigma. All you have to do is look at the employment rates for these students or any disability and you realize, “This statement still pretty strong out there.”  

HR: How can people learn more about Beacon College, who now have an interest now that they’ve seen this and become acquainted with you?  

GH: Well, the easiest way sounds like an advertisement but I might as well give a little propaganda. is our website. The best way of knowing if Beacon is a kind of institution your student is interested in, is actually to come on campus. We’re growing rather rapidly. I know it was a small number 187. But in the last five years, we’ve grown to 420, and we will grow to 500. We think that it’s the appropriate size for this particular institution. We’ve had a number of overtures to start campuses elsewhere. We’re trying to be very careful so that we create the best possible undergraduate environment that we can here. But we’re right now building a new residence hall for another hundred, which should take us to the 500 student population, and the model is one that works for this profile of student. And also for other students who may have different learning styles, or may have some processing issues. It’s very important to recognize that when you’ve met one ADHD student, you met one ADHD student. And we really do try to use the best practices of Universal Design and learning to address the issues that any of our students may bring to us including the springs by the way.  

Neurodiversity around the world

HR: Are there any topics have we not covered today that you’d like to cover?  

OH: These are issues with our borders, there’s no difference of the incidence rates, they may fluctuate a little bit but the one issue that is, I think, getting–not I think, but it is getting better in the United States–is that these students do have a future if they can get access to the right services. Overseas, two perspectives on students with learning and attention issues which includes autistic spectrum– one is pretty negative– which is that these are luxury disabilities. They just don’t have the resources or the focus on, but the other end of this and it’s an increasing world view, I would say certainly in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and in Asia. These sons and daughters of these families really have lost lives because of the lack of services, it’s just as devastating in real life as if they had any other disability. And certainly they may approach you and you can’t tell that there’s a disability there, but they are either pretty much homebound and work very menial jobs. And it really is a lost life, so this is an issue of profound importance to Oksana and I, simply because whenever we go over we feel that the audiences are big and then enthusiastic. But the issues are profound and the services is a very limited.  

HR: Well, That’s an eye opener isn’t it. We’ve done a great job at providing the access to education to many students with physical disabilities and verbal disabilities. It’s not only to have to allow the key in the classroom, it’s also that you have to provide specific services to help this student. And sometimes, like, let’s mainstream these kids, these students. And I placed a kid in the classroom. Sure you can, you should. You should not segregate this student on the spectrum. However, you should also provide services. And very often of providing access, this is where the intervention stops and this is very–this is probably just as bad as not providing any education because kids get traumatized as the kid gets the idea that, “Oh my god, I probably can’t do that. It’s probably not my place.” So, specific lines to disabilities, cutting access to education, providing access to services. It’s not just bringing the kid to the classroom, it’s bringing the services to the classroom too.  

Supporting Neurodivergent Students

HR: You, what is Beacon College do in providing mental health counseling?  

GH: We have for professional counselors on campus for a population of 420. They certainly are busy because of the concomitant issues of depression, anxiety and OCD, and just the drama roommate problems and all the rest you know. But we also part of the strap around. The learning specialists pretty much know exactly what’s going on with that student in their life and we’re small enough that we can share all sorts of data. But we did something two years ago that is proving very successful. We added the roll-call, a community educator to the wraparound but also directly related to the academic program, and the role of a community educator is to be in those natural settings for students. And those would be the dining commons of the Student Center. Even the residences so I really don’t have an office so to speak. And they are a wonderful, not only early warning system, but there are a wonderful level of for us. We have two of them, and also if I’m sure this doesn’t happen on other campuses, but some of our students, particularly are those with ADHD, should get to go to their learning specialist meeting and so if that happens.  

HR: I’m sure that never happens anywhere.  

GH: So, if that happens and it happens a couple of times because ritual is very important to these students, showing up on time, doing the knowing, what the consequences are for any kind of behavior. It is very important and it’s kind of crazy that we, on any campus, that we have these fully developed adults who come to colleges, freshman they aren’t, and there are various stages of development and what it is our responsibility if we really do care about that development is independent adults. It’s our responsibility to make sure that we have the kinds of programs and services that will support them in the development early on and with big leaves, and I don’t think we talked about this and scaffolding services. And so you’re going to get pretty intensive services your freshman year.  

Moving beyond challenges

HR: What’s the one message about Beacon College, Oksana, that you and George would like to leave with our audiences today?  

OH: I think beacon college is really a great place to come as a student, but also great place to be to work at as a professional. And I absolutely love the mission and the opportunities of the different brains that I see here, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that and this is amazing and the truly educational experience is like– this is really a better way to teach–let’s say–neuro-typicals as we do not exist. We’re probably all different but, here at beacon, you see more. It’s kind of magnified and it keeps us away to develop ways and methods and approaches that can be used by all the institutions, by all the parents, by the students themselves to be more successful in quite a competitive and complex waltz.  

HR: Now George, Do you have anything to add to that?  

GH: Yes, it would be to students and certainly parents who are trying to support them. Recognize that whatever island of challenge you think you may have should not and does not need to become the landscape of your life and look for. First of all, don’t believe well-intentioned experts about the boundaries that you can push as long as you are motivated. You will be amazed at the turns. Very positive turns in real life takes. If you find the right community that embraces you and that you can embrace.  

HR: Well said! Well Dr. George Hagerty, Dr. Oksana Hagerty, thank you so much for both being with us here today at Different Brains. We hope you will visit us again. And I want to thank you so much for all you’re doing at Beacon College for those of us whose brains are a little bit different!  

GH: Thank you.  

OH: Thank you for all you’re doing too.