Schools for Children created Different Choices 2021, a virtual college & career transition fair specifically for students with IEPs, 504s and/or mental health challenges. The multi-day event at the end of October included the panel presentation In Our Own Voices, presented by Different Choices partner the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Massachusetts (NAMI Massachusetts).
The presentation brought together a group of current college students and recent graduates with mental health challenges to share their personal journeys navigating their college experience. The students are part of the NAMI In Our Own Voices Program. Michelle Ward-Gilles, director of community education and outreach at NAMI Massachusetts, moderated the panel.
The NAMI speakers were open about the challenges that they faced as young people attending college with mental health differences. They also recounted some of the joy they experienced in overcoming obstacles and setbacks. The panelists provided advice and strategies gleaned from their hard-won success. (The session wasn’t recorded as the students disclosed a great deal of very personal information about their individual struggles with mental health and learning disabilities.)
From the Heart
It was both instructive and inspiring to attendees ‒ students, caregivers, educators and mental health professionals ‒ to hear each panelist’s personal account and see that they persevered and made it through. The student panelists repeatedly stressed that finding the right college environment for them was critical, and that it took them time to do so. Most of them had switched institutions at least once in their college career, some had taken gap years, and all agreed that choosing colleges based on the general reputation of the college, and not how it would fit their own needs, was often their biggest mistake.
The student speakers who changed colleges had either gone to large, well-known colleges and realized smaller colleges were a better match or had gone far from home for college, only to realize that they were more successful when family was nearby.
Each panelist concluded by telling Different Choices participants to:
- Carefully research their college options before applying.
- Ask a lot of questions about the environment and the types of services offered to students.
- And, most of all, listen carefully to the answers.