Dear Fort Lewis College,
Hometown: Albuquerque, NM
Since I was a young girl, my North Carolinan parents have reinforced the importance of writing thank you notes. With graduation next month, I am compiling letters for individuals who supported me at the college. However, I realize that it was not individuals who enabled my personal growth, but the entire Fort Lewis College Community.
Like many students who select Fort Lewis College, I was drawn to the interdisciplinary spirit of a liberal arts education and the small class sizes. The reason why I sought out those characteristics was slightly unique: I am autistic. I was diagnosed with high functioning autism at the age of 5 and through the support of several therapists, teachers, and loved ones, I was capable of attending college. However during my high school years in New Mexico, college was referred to as the “c-word” in my house because I was terrified to leave home! I was aware that a large university would not be a great personal fit, and the closest public liberal arts college was over the border in Colorado. I went on a campus visit as a junior in high school, and sat in on a political science class. That experience enabled me to picture myself as a college student and try for an out of state college. Once I received the New Mexico Reciprocal Scholarship, I felt confident committing to the Fort.
Almost five years later, I can sincerely say: I love my school. The offices across campus have always worked as a team to help me function in a frequently overwhelming environment. My fantastic advisor, Dr. Sue Kraus, has helped me with a myriad of challenges from graduate school applications to invaluable social feedback. Studying psychology as an autistic individual is a sensitive endeavor. Every time autism was mentioned in a syllabus, I met with the professors who created safe environments to share my experiences, and to hear other students’ exposures to mental and medical needs. After several classes, I realized that negative beliefs towards individuals with disabilities are prevalent in American society. My professors encouraged me to dispute academia’s beliefs with research and panel discussions where I and other students shared our experience with the Durango community.
I was also able to find my voice through writing. Growing up, some teachers believed that autism meant that I could not communicate effectively, especially through my writing. After receiving a zero on a completed essay in high school, I vowed to never write publicly. Obviously, the Fort boosted my confidence in that area. I decided to research health discrimination for my Research Methods class, and the experiment results were interesting enough that my co-author and I decided to try and have it published. After several months of editing, I submitted a draft to the Metamorphosis journal committee at the college, and it was published! The next semester I was shocked when my Art History professor used my response paper as a class example! The positive feedback from my professors encouraged me to create a public blog during my semester abroad. My writing skills have continued to improve through serving student blog manager this year. I am still amazed at how peoples’ perceptions of my writing changed in five years. I could still improve (I am quite long winded) but I am thrilled with my progress!
In previous blog posts, I have shared my active involvement on campus. The main reason why I am involved with the college community is because it is a chance to pay forward the support I have received. I feel so lucky that I have been able to give back to the college in several capacities including (but not limited to) a proud member of the Village Aid Project-Engineers Without Borders team, Club Ballet Folklorico de Durango, and as student ambassador. I cringe to think about how empty my college experience would be without these experiences.
Last summer I had a chance to visit my high school friends who attend one of the largest universities in the country. It was an awesome visit and I loved seeing a different college experience (even though I was freaked out by their classroom with 400 seats)! One of my friends was driving me to the airport, and she shared with me a conversation between a mutual friend. They were evaluating college experiences and out of our group, they decided that I have accomplished the most in college and do the most in life. I humbly accepted the compliment, but directed the credit to what made all of those opportunities possible: Fort Lewis College. This school deserves the credit for me attending college, choosing a more satisfying career path, and pursuing new experiences that enhanced my education.
Adversity is a part of the human experience, and I know this college has supported other individuals in overcoming their challenges, from autism to financial concerns. Thank you Fort Lewis College for believing in my and my fellow students’ potential. I am leaving here as an adventurous, confident, empowered, and humble person, having grown so much from the teenager who stood at the edge of campus overlooking Durango on a campus tour, five years ago. I am leaving a significant piece of me in Durango, and I will always be a Skyhawk. Please remain awesome, Fort Lewis College!