By Jasmine Lamb, Director of Programs

We do not pay our students to make us look good. I swear.

We do coach our students around social interactions and help them develop the ability to understand context and take the perspective of others, but we definitely do not coach them to behave in any particular way when we have visitors – in part because the entire point of the visit is to get an authentic experience of Mansfield Hall. 

It’s actually really important to us that families get a realistic picture of our community and program. If their student decides to attend we will all be in long term relationships with each other – and we know this will be much more successful if we are authentic and transparent from the get go. 

But our students are really awesome – and sometimes they share a glimpse of this with our visitors. 

I recently returned from a week at our Madison location that included a welcome day for a small group of students and parents joining the community for the Spring Semester (space is limited, but sometimes we have a few spaces in January). 

The staff had spent the morning with preparations for the new families arriving at mid-day. Everyone helped make lunch and our Community Outreach Director, Paul Hendrickson, grilled chicken on the porch in the sub-zero weather (if you live in the Midwest in winter you can’t let a little winter stop you). 

After lunch parents and students split up to attend their respective orientation meetings, and Hayley Weaver, Madison’s Site Director, and I led a parent orientation. At the start of our orientation we went around the circle and shared one hope we had for the new students. Parents shared their hope that their son or daughter would make friends and be able to follow through on class work. They hoped they would ask for help when they needed it. They hoped they would get closer to knowing their personal passions. 

Hayley shared that her favorite part of her job is when a student comes to her to say, “I did it!” – whether they are reflecting on an assignment they did well in or that they asked a friend to go out with them. She said she loved celebrating these moments of success and she hoped she would get this opportunity with these new students. 

By the end of the hour we had talked about our model being based around community and coaching relationships, we reminded them that transitions are hard and most of our students have bumpy landings their first semester with us. We acknowledged that this is true for ALL college students, not just ours. 

We were knee deep in the conversation about academic progress monitoring and parsing out for the families how our case management and coaching bumpers provide the opportunity for greater success, but that the student is still the one bowling – and we can’t absolutely ensure they will hit the pins every time.  In fact, it is the combination of those realities that makes Mansfield Hall both a supportive community for college students with autism, asperger’s, and learning disabilities or learning differences and also provides them an authentic college experience. The parents were all looking at us with the unique facial expression that combines terror and relief.  

We are used to this.  Supporting the transition to college and independence is what we do.

We were near the end of the session – but not quite done – when the door burst open and a student ran into the room. He didn’t recognize that we were in the middle of a presentation because he was too excited to see Hayley and exclaim, “I did it! I was accepted to the University of Wisconsin!” 

He was rushing toward her, looking like he was going in for a bear hug. She was totally ready, and had stood up from her chair, but then he screeched to a halt, his arms awkwardly open and head slowly turning as he realized there were a lot of people in the room that he did not recognize.  Hayley gracefully signaled for – and received – a double high five, and while they celebrated I looked through them to the new parents whose looks of cautious optimism had been replaced with surprise, joy, and just a little incredulity, as if to say, “C’mon! Seriously? Was that for real!?”

What can I say?  We can’t make this stuff up.  A supported start in an authentic college experience provides real rewards – and we are thrilled to be a part of it.

When the student left the room (in his brand new University of Wisconsin hoodie, of course!) we sat back down.  Hayley and I had to rush to reassure and promise the parents that we really had not staged the scene. It really was an authentic moment. 

It was the real life joy of accomplishment we have the privilege of witnessing – all the time. 

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Jasmine Lamb oversees programming and operations at all three of our sites: Eugene, Oregon, Burlington, Vermont, and Madison, Wisconsin.