St. Thomas graduates first class through an innovative program for students with learning differences

In a small classroom at the University of St. Thomas, Tera Torres talks to her students about the assignments they have left to complete before receiving their diplomas. Tommy Hughes looks down at his desk and smiles when he hears the word “graduation.”

It’s an exciting prospect for Hughes and his 11 classmates in the university’s Pragmatic Studies program, an applied science degree for students with learning differences and neurological conditions, including dyslexia, anxiety, ADHD and autism. Many of them didn’t take the stage upon graduating from high school, and many have said that years ago they weren’t sure they would ever attend college, let alone finish it, due to past academic struggles.

Every member of the inaugural class in 2021 is still in the program, university officials said. They will be the first cohort of pragmatists to graduate from the 75-year-old private Catholic institution – and most of them hope to enter a new graduate program in the same subject this fall, provided the university is accredited in time .

“It’s hard to think about the first cohort, it’s already (done) so fast,” said Hughes, 20. “Two years seem long, but they go by quickly.”

Torres, their professor and program director, has spent five years consulting students with special needs to plan their curriculum, and university officials believe he is one of the few in the United States to have a structure that goes against tradition. Many higher education programs for students with learning differences are exclusively professional, but St. Thomas’ pragmatic studies graduates prepare to enter a variety of fields, Torres said.

The students are a compact group. They joke, know each other’s habits and are ready to celebrate their friends’ successes. (Most of the cohort will be taking a celebration cruise with Torres, the program chair, in June). They studied together for six semesters and “blowed it out,” Torres said, taking wide-ranging courses that range from life skills to more traditional liberal arts curricula.

Fan favorites were courses in “healthy relationships” and “academic strategy,” but the cohort also took classes including holy scripture, criminology, environmental science, and political science. Hughes, who said he struggles with executive functioning and understanding, enjoyed his math classes the most.

“One is a math application (course) to boost your skills on real-world math and taxes, budgeting and spending habits,” he said. “The second course, a year later, taught more about investing and retirement. It was nothing like what we experienced in high school: algebra, geometry. Lots of good lessons.”

Hughes said he always wanted to go to college. But he also knew it would be important for him to find a program that allowed for the “normal” college experience, especially finishing high school in a pandemic that was anything but.

Torres, a longtime special educator, said normalcy is the goal for most Pragmatic Studies students, who she has all found hardworking and intelligent.

He started devising the program about seven years ago after seeing K-12 schools belittling students with learning differences.

“I see they are not limited,” Torres said. “It’s the systems. The systems didn’t meet them where they are.”

Many of the associate’s students said they found a learning environment in St. Thomas unlike any they have ever experienced, with professors making accommodations related to their differences but not treating them with less respect. Emily Mannikko, 26, said she prefers to present homework in essay format, while her classmate, Kasem Fletcher, does better with PowerPoint presentations. Another peer turns into sculptures.

“As long as it’s within the realm of what we’re talking about, it’s recognized and supported,” Mannikko said.

St. Thomas officials say the different approaches help Pragmatic Studies students succeed in ways that work for them. This has built confidence in many students, Torres said, helping them move into leadership positions on campus or at least feel self-reliant for the first time in their lives.

“You have students who have started, they wouldn’t make eye contact with you,” said Nicole Walters, founding dean of the Kolbe School of Innovation.

Now, he added, “We have parents who have said, ‘You changed my son, you gave him a life back.'”

Mannikko said she always wanted to go to college, but knew she needed more academic support than most colleges can give her for her general anxiety disorder. At St. Thomas, she said the help of her professors showed that they don’t see her differences as a barrier.

“It’s more validated,” he said.

The second cohort has 34 students, split into classes of no more than 12, and Torres is building the third cohort of associates for the fall. Many of the current students are on the principal’s list, she said.

“We say, ‘Go get the brass ring,’ but if nobody tells you how to get the brass ring or even tells you there’s a brass ring or where it is, then you’ll never get to it.” Torres said. “It’s about giving a chance to people who haven’t had a chance because the world forgets about them.”

Chris Borgman, 26, will graduate in May alongside Hughes and Mannikko. He sees it as a huge accomplishment: His ADHD made it difficult to finish an associate’s degree at community college, but now he’s on his way to a college degree and certification as a veterinary technician.

“I didn’t get to walk to my high school graduation because I finished online, so being able to actually do it this time is quite an experience,” Borgman said. “It’s going to be a little embarrassing, just thinking about my mom taking so many pictures. It’s been so long since I’ve had anything to do with this.”

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