Published in The Day

By John Penney

New London ― Mitchell College students, including a cartoonist on the autism spectrum, a survivor of multiple surgeries and an aspiring dancer with concentration issues, shared their stories on Friday as part of a soon-to-be nationally broadcast podcast taping at the Pequot Avenue campus.

The recording of the Latino Rebels Radio episode, hosted by renowned journalist Julio Varela, focused on the issues faced by neurodivergent and other non-traditional students, as well as how the college continues to foster a welcoming and inclusive learning environment for them.

Seven students were on the panel, including Tom Simmons, a 21-year-old Long Island, N.Y., native diagnosed at an early age with spina bifida, a condition that required the college senior to endure a dozen surgeries before he turned 18.

Simmons said his physical issues were compounded by a confirmation of dyslexia, a diagnostic one-two punch that made learning a challenge, even at home.

“So, when I got to college, I had to learn how to learn,” he said. “I’m a conversational learner; I don’t take a lot of notes. Luckily, I have a lot of professors that teach the way I learn, with circle groups and power points.”

Simmons falls into the category of “neurodivergent,” an umbrella term that can include individuals with autism, depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress syndrome and other cognitive issues.

Mitchell College Dean Elizabeth Beaulieu said neurodivergent students often absorb and process information through different “lenses,” requiring schools like hers to ensure a welcoming and accessible learning environment.

“We include you here no matter how your brain works,” Beaulieu said. “Of our 500 students, about half are neurodivergent.”

Those students are aided by a suite of academic offerings, including specialized tutors and embedded learning aides. Neurodivergent students and their “neurotypical” colleagues ― individuals whose thinking, learning and behavioral patterns are considered “normal” by the general populace ― take classes together, participate in campus activities and share the same residence halls and sports fields, Beaulieu said.

Friday’s podcast episode, “Neuro-inclusivity, Belonging and Radical Hospitality,” marked the third collaboration between Varela and the events’ sponsor, The Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, which began at Three Rivers Community College and Eastern Connecticut State University in 2019.

Varela, a contributor to several publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Atlantic, said interviewing students for the podcast series dovetailed with his instinct to seek out traditionally under-represented and ignored voices and allow them to tell their own stories.

“It’s the job of a journalist to shine a light through the lens of a diverse community, to be a curious learner,” he said. “It’s to amplify the voices of others without expectations.”

More than 80 attendees of the podcast recording, set to air on Thursday, packed into an upper-floor room of the college’s Weller Center where Varela took turns interviewing his student guests in small groups.

Will Dreier, a 23-year-old senior, charmed the crowd with his upbeat description of his autism diagnosis.

“I view it as my superpower, my special gift,” said Dreier, who grew up in Barrington, R.I., before enrolling at the New London college. “It gives me my creativity and inspires my cartoons.”

The senior said he hopes to parlay his artistic skill into a job with the Nickelodeon television channel, something he hoped might lead to a greater understanding of his disorder by the general public.

“A lot of media, aside from ‘Sesame Street,’ don’t have characters that represent autism or the diversity of the spectrum,” he said.

Several of the panelists praised their professors for rejecting a one-size-fits-all mode of teaching.

For Jospeh “Juju” Volkerts, a New London resident now in his third year at Mitchell, years of living with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder meant finding an outlet for the constant current of energy coursing through his body and brain.

“Pursuing dancing allowed me to actually stay focused in class,” said the communications major. “I learn best through hands-on work; I have to do it to get it. People think neurodiversity means you’re stupid, but it just means you think differently.”