Hillsdale College may not have an official office for helping students with learning disabilities, but they do have something even more effective, according to students.
Dean of Men Aaron Petersen said the respective dean’s office have handled dysgraphia, dyslexia, ADD, and ADHD, and have always “had success just talking it through,” and finding the right accommodations.
Former student Alex Pack said Hillsdale’s process streamlined the bureaucracy of receiving accommodations for learning disabilities.
“The whole accomodation break from the mold is all about making it easier on everyone,” Pack said, explaining that he talked and submitted his doctor’s letter to the dean’s office before his first class on campus.
Pack said telling his professors about his accommodation was like informing them of a preferred nickname.
“They usually responded, ‘Oh, just let me know what you need,’” Pack said.
Pack was diagnosed at age 8 with dysgraphia, which impairs handwriting ability and fine motor skills. Then, his way of learning shifted toward technology to supplement his non-intelligent recall memory, which Pack explained as “the ability to remember things without any connection,” he said. “Intelligent Recall Memory, in contrast, is the ability to remember things with a connection.”
But he said that technology makes his life a lot easier.
“Technology is a huge help — you have to remember less,” Pack said. “For example, think of an iPhone. Without it, you would have to remember so many phone numbers and addresses.”
Pack said he had put off fulfilling his language requirement, because having taken three years of Spanish, he knew it would wreck his GPA due to non-intelligent recall memory for vocabulary.
“There are different ways to learn a language,” he said. “When I do learn a language, I’ll use an app like Duolingo that integrates me more with how the language is spoken, rather than just memorizing vocabulary.”
Pack said dysgraphia makes him think differently, which isn’t necessarily bad.
“Dysgraphia makes how I understand the world and use words different,” he said. “I wouldn’t take medication to make me normal. I think it’s better; I find myself finding logical processes much more interesting and more complex.”
Pack requested accommodations for typing instead of writing essays during exams, and time and a half to complete them, though he said he rarely uses it.
“No one wants to read handwritten essays, and it’s easier for professors to grade,” he said. “I just put my computer on airplane mode, and make it easy for the professor to see my screen to make it obvious I’m not cheating.”
Pack said that in his experience, Hillsdale has done an exceptional job catering to students with learning disabilities.
“Hillsdale did as much as they needed to do — the professors were happy to work with me, and to educate me,” he said.
Petersen also highly commended the college’s staff.
“Our professors here are outstanding with meeting the needs of students, and always have been,” he said. “One of our great strengths as an institution is the professors and their willingness to help.”
Petersen recommended students reach out to their professor and ask for extra time on their exams. Sometimes the two work it out, he said, but typically the professor encourages the student to work with the deans.
To help with this, Hillsdale offers an online accommodations request form asking for contact information, a medical assessment of the disability no older than three years old, a description of the disability, and the sought accommodations.
Petersen said the online form benefits freshmen the most because they are unfamiliar with the campus and faculty.
“A few incoming students reached out to my office this summer regarding accommodations,” he said. “They either called directly or submitted the online form. We had initial conversations in the summer and reconnected in the fall upon their arrival.”
Petersen said his relationships are built on the person, not on their disability.
“Students typically have figured out what accommodations reasonably address their disability by the time they come to college, which is helpful,” he said. “I am impressed by how hard students will work to not let their disability be a block to success. We want to partner with them in that.”
Petersen encouraged students to reach out for help early.
“We work closely with each student in determining a reasonable accommodation, then notify the professors accordingly, and the professor will meet the accommodation,” Petersen said. “If there’s strong need after that, students shoot me an email saying, ‘Hey Dean, is there any way you can shoot out emails to my new professors this semester?”
Petersen said the dean’s office keeps such matters confidential.
“Professors, students can expect confidentiality and privacy here,” Petersen said. “Sometimes students share their disability issues directly with their professors, and I think professors typically appreciate the students’ openness.”
Petersen said Hillsdale’s community helps encourage students to seek help if they are struggling.
“Residence hall life, with its tightly-knit communities, provides help to students with disabilities,” he said. “They will find encouragement to come to the deans if they are struggling in a class, or in some way.”
Petersen said he had no experience with any student trying to abuse accommodations. In fact, he said some who are given accommodations rarely use them.
Sophomore Montie Montgomery did not immediately disclose having ADD to the deans because he hadn’t had problems at Hillsdale.
Although he could qualify, Montgomery said he had never asked for extra time on tests at Hillsdale.
“I went to public school my entire life. There, things were a bit different,” he said. “I never had to ask for extra time, I just took longer times on my tests and quizzes because you get to a point on a quiz or test and you look at the words and you’re like, ‘I really don’t want to do this anymore.’”
The boring format of standardized tests at public school negatively affected him, Montgomery said.
“But here, they structure tests differently. It’s a lot more writing-based, from my experience, and there haven’t been standardized tests,” Montgomery said. “It’s generally been really easy for me to get done in the standard amount of time. Sometimes, I even finish ahead of schedule.”
Montgomery was diagnosed at age 6. The doctors prescribed him Adderall, but he switched to Metadate because Adderall dulled his personality, he said, and he’s been on it ever since.
“I was reading very early; learning was never really hard for me,” he said. “Part of that was because my parents put me on medication at a young age.”
Montgomery said Metadate helped him, but as he grew older, it lasted for a shorter period of time.
“Here, you’re not wading through school, and then have homework. It’s like you’re constantly working on everything,” he said. “And so I’m up to 2 a.m. quite often trying to take 17 credit hours, trying to learn a new language, and being involved in so many extracurricular activities.”
Montgomery said his medicine wears off around 3 p.m. — usually before he’s even out of class.
He said his hardest struggle was taking foreign languages, which he also couldn’t complete in high school.
“I love reading, but when it comes to foreign languages, it’s like I have to rewrite the entire book. Latin has been easy for me — I can conceptualize that, and it mirrors English,” he said. “But with Spanish, it dragged my GPA down,” Montgomery said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily because I have ADD, but I think it played a role in it.”
Montgomery said having ADD didn’t preclude him from pursuing strong academics or club roles at Hillsdale. In fact, he said college was easier for him than high school.
“Classes in general here are hard, but, you know, I like challenge, and it hasn’t held me back,” he said. “The classes aren’t hard enough to the point I can’t do them. I still have a good GPA, I’ve been on Student Federation for the past year, and I’m running for vice president now, and I have countless leadership roles on campus.”
Montgomery said his ADD isn’t obvious.
“If there’s one thing people can visibly see about me having ADD is that I’m a bit more quirky and outgoing,” he said. “Like, not in a way that’s bad at all, but I jump around with my sentences, unless I have it in front of me.”
Montgomery said he would like to get off the medicine in the future, when he’s not in school and hopefully working at a thinktank in Washington D.C., a job which he thought would complement his personality and ADD.
“I think working someplace like the Cato Institute would be a good thing for me because I’m very extroverted, but also decently introverted,” he said. “I’m an [Extraversion, Intuition, Thinking, and Perception on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator], so I think ADD helps because I can just spout out a bunch of random stuff and keep a conversation going for two hours.”
Montgomery also said Metadate has negative side effects.
“I think I’m medically addicted to it,” he said. “I get incredibly moody when I’m not on it. I think it had a really negative effect on some of my friendships here that I would lash out at. So I’m not a big fan of the pill, even though it helps. I think it’s significantly altered my personality.”
Montgomery hopes to eventually follow the path of his dad, for financial and health reasons.
“I’d like to be off it in nine to 10 years. I know my dad has ADD, and I’ve never seen him take a pill for it,” he said. “And he does just fine.”