Many students with disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), leave high school unprepared for post-secondary education and are statistically less likely to complete the programs they start. As more young people with ASD are identified, it’s important to support them as they transition to postsecondary education. Last summer, the University of St. Thomas collaborated with Minnesota Life College (MLC) to create the College Pre-Orientation Program (POP), a week-long overnight event to help students with ASD and other special needs to be prepared to participate in college orientation programs and succeed in college.

“Many of the common characteristics of ASDs can create significant barriers to success on a college campus, and the number of students with ASD who do not finish college indicate a significant lack of needed support,” said Lynn Stansberry Brusnahan, Ph.D., associate professor in special education and gifted education.

The program included 10 students from across the U.S. who were invited to the University of St. Thomas St. Paul campus. Staff for the event included Dr. Lynn Stansberry Brusnahan; Karen Kirchner, MLC undergraduate program coordinator; and Ashley McLaughlin, BA ’09, MA ’13, and current student Megan Schuchman, both from the Special Education Autism Spectrum Disorders Licensure program.

Students participate in POP during or just following their senior year of high school. The program prepares students for a smoother and more seamless transition from high school to college, improving retention in post-secondary education settings. Students learn how to access disability service office support, navigate the college campus, and use faculty and peer supports. They also get an inside glimpse of dorm life, learning where to go for help with relationship issues with roommates, as well as explore basic adaptive, social and self-determination skills necessary for success on a college campus.

The last day of the program included a wrap-up session and luncheon for students, parents and staff. Parents of POP students expressed their appreciation of the program. POP students shared their reflections about the week-long program, stating, “This has been a great experience, and I feel more prepared,” and “I loved that I was able to meet people like me who have some of the same interests.”

“Students participating in POP will learn how to work within existing systems and how to effectively access these systems,” said Stansberry Brusnahan. “This is significant as postsecondary education can improve their employment outcomes and quality of life.”

Check out our Facebook album for POP photos or watch a slide show recapping the week’s events.

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