Notre Dame College’s Learning Center is Thriving

Notre Dame College
Notre Dame College was founded by the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1922.

Sending your eighteen-year-old off to college typically involves a heady mix of excitement and fear. Will it be a good fit? Can they handle life on their own? Will they succeed? Now magnify those worries for parents of students with documented learning differences, such as Autism and ADHD. Who will understand them? Will they self-advocate or slip perilously through the cracks? All valid concerns college-bound students with learning disabilities face after high school. But Notre Dame College in Cleveland assuages those fears through an innovative initiative called The Thrive Learning Center. Its director, Mary Jo Levand, has created a safe landing zone that guides these students through college using a personalized academic, social and emotional support system. In a recent interview, 101ability’s Priya Iyer caught up with Levand to learn more about Thrive’s holistic approach and their subsequent success preparing students for college and life beyond graduation.

Priya Iyer: I wanted to talk to you about the transformation from the Academic Support Center to the Thrive Learning Center, what it means, and what a holistic approach means.

Mary Jo Levand: Absolutely. It’s so amazing, because most of the people you run into in this industry have some personal connection to it. Even if you don’t have a child of your own who’s been diagnosed either with autism or a learning disability, they have something. In my own personal life, I have two children, one who was dyslexic and another one with ADHD. That’s how I got started. We were in private schools. I could tell that my daughter wasn’t picking things up as quickly as she should be, and I figured out there was a need. The school kept telling me, “No, no, no,” because they didn’t want to serve her, which is typically what you hear. Even in public school systems you hear that.

I had a friend who was working at what was formerly the Academic Support Center and now is at Thrive. We started talking and I was like, “I would love to come and help there. I would love to be a tutor.” I’m a certified public accountant by my college background, but then I have worked now at Thrive for ten years and I’ve done just about every position.

Thrive is unique because, as you know, once you get out of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and ADA (Americans with Disability Act) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 takes over for college-age students, the government kind of steps back. They’ve done good things with IDEA. You can get IEPs and 504 plans. But they step back when it comes to college. You had all these kids who were extremely bright, who were getting the appropriate support they needed and were being evaluated every year through school to make sure that their accommodations and their support matched what they needed.

And then all of a sudden, they say, “OK, you did really well. You got the support. You excelled in academics. You really enjoyed learning. And now we’re not going to help.” So 15 years ago, a few friends of mine got together and said, “Let’s try taking some of those accommodations that students are getting in high school and let’s apply them to Notre Dame College’s courses and curriculum.” And it worked out well, because we’re a Catholic institution, and our mission is to serve diverse populations, and students with learning disabilities are a diverse and underserved population.

We started very small. We literally had two students our first year. We didn’t advertise. We just wanted to see if it would work. We didn’t want to give anyone the impression that we had a program that we knew would work and that we knew would be successful. It grew from there. We definitely started on the academic side, because we knew what supports worked in high school and we transferred them over to the college setting. And having two students, you could watch as they grew. Well, we grew exponentially from there. Currently, we serve about 100 students. We have 20 staff. They are mostly part-time instructional advisors, and we call them instructional advisors instead of tutors because, as you know, a lot of times with students with learning disabilities, it’s not about teaching them the content, but it’s about helping them to organize, figuring out the best ways for them to learn the material they are being introduced to, and then maybe scattering in content.

What we found was peer tutoring, which is part of most college tutoring centers, wasn’t enough, that the peer tutors didn’t have enough background or insight into what a student with a learning disability needs to be able to help them successfully. So all of our tutors are professional tutors in the sense that they are subject-specific—professionals in the areas of study that the student is coming to them for, and that we provide professional development and education to them based on all of the different disabilities that we see within out center.

Notre Dame Collage Teaching at Thrive
Each student has personalized instructional services

Iyer: That’s wonderful! Do you take students with all different types of learning disabilities?

Levand: We have probably 13 different disabilities that we serve at any one given time, the majority being dyslexia, ADHD, and autism. But what we saw over the past five years, when we hit that growing pain stage was that accommodations in and for academics wasn’t enough. When we took a real hard look at ourselves, we realized that every place we were building was basically a non-academic complement. So for instance, we have a first-year seminar course that every student in the college has to take. What we did was, we took each and every first-year freshman student who was going to be a member of the Thrive Center, and we put them into a specific section of that class.

Then we partnered with the Cleveland Clinic and their behavioral modification and ADHD areas and we said, “Here’s the syllabus that the college uses to teach this course, and here are the subjects that we go over in that course. What would you do for a student on the autism spectrum? What would you add to the syllabus? What would you do for a student with ADHD?” They not only built it in, but they actually come in and teach that piece for us. We have experts coming from the Cleveland Clinic once a week who will teach those portions of that course for our students.

The other thing we saw come out of that was relationships for our students. For our students, on the social and emotional side of things, college is a huge transition for them, especially if they’re going to live on campus. We thought about that piece of it. We’ve developed a comm floor in our dormitory space that our students can choose to live on. They don’t have to, but they can live there, and each year they get to decide with the RA what the parameters of that floor living will be. Which typically means more quiet hours and a quieter environment overall. We do workshops for them. Our RA is educated in the mental health needs and the educational issues of the students on the floor.

One of the nice things is that a students’ diagnosis is never given out, not to a professor or to an RA. The only thing we give to anybody outside of our center is how they can help and support. If we have two or three students in a particular course and they may have two or three different diagnoses, a professor doesn’t know those diagnoses. He or she just knows what that student needs, whether it’s priority seating, a copy of PowerPoints or lectures, or whether it’s being able to record the class. They’re never judged; and they’re never seen as the diagnoses. They’re just seen as a student who needs some extra help to level the playing field for them.

Iyer: What you do for students beyond the academics.

Levand: We just kept going with non-academic complements. We found that mental health was one of those issues where our students tended to need a little more support. Our counseling center on campus is outstanding, but probably 25 percent of the students they were seeing were our students. We collaborated with them and now we have an on-site counseling center. Our students can see a campus counselor right within our Thrive Learning Center, which helps them feel less threatened. They don’t have to walk to another place. They don’t have to identify. They feel less judged. We’ve seen a huge increase in them using the mental health aspect of support at our college and that’s helped in a lot of respects.

It helped immensely during COVID. We’ve been doing group work and projects, so even in this virtual environment, our counselors put together some virtual groups where our students could get together on Zoom or on Team, see one another, and talk about the things they were all experiencing and going through. We’ve done that in the center for the past three years, but we kept it going on Zoom, and that really helped, because our students felt so isolated in this environment. We had multiple students going virtual last March, and then we did a hybrid plan during and between the fall and spring semesters. We had quite a few students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) who decided not to continue this spring.

That made us a little anxious, because they’re great kids and do well academically, but it was the social isolation. Using Zoom didn’t work for them. So we allowed them to come in and still have personal counseling with our mental health providers. And fortunately, all of them are coming back next fall, because we are planning on being face-to-face next fall. So I feel good that we were able to take that group of students and hold on to them and keep them engaged enough to bring them back next fall and not give up on their dreams.

That’s kind of the goal here. We see so many students. You saw our video and the one young lady in it who said her second grade teacher told her she would never graduate from college. She’s graduating. She’s got a job with a wonderful educational school district here in Cleveland. She couldn’t be more thrilled. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to provide the same education that every person is entitled to, to those students who need a few more accommodations. It’s not fair to believe that once they’re out of high school, they will know how to self-advocate; they can self-determine and they will be more than happy to tell their professors what they need.

We’ve also seen so many college environments put the responsibility on the student to prove that they need those accommodations. Why am I going to be judge and jury and say, “You don’t need those any longer”? We still evaluate them every year. We evaluate them every class to decide whether or not they need all of the accommodations for each specific class, and they always have the ability to tell us, “I don’t want you sending my accommodations to this or that professor.” The student’s always in charge. But we’ve decided that the best way to handle this population is as an individual. So if we keep our numbers down, if we keep it somewhere around 100, we can do that effectively and efficiently, and we’re individualizing college for these students who really want to be there. And we’ve seen so many of them succeed.

We do progress advising with them. That helps with their organizational skills. We help them with registering for courses to make sure they stay on track. The majority of our students graduate in about four and a half years, which is a great average for any student. We also do a lot of recognition for them. Delta Alpha Pi is an international fraternity for students with learning disabilities. We are a chapter. We do have a chapter at Notre Dame and in the Thrive Center, and these kids have never been recognized for these kinds of things before, and they’re ecstatic. So we spend a lot of time celebrating the fact that they are achieving things just as much, if not more, than other students.

One of our biggest takeaways is the self-esteem built into these students over the four years where they are becoming adults, becoming independent, learning to live on their own, and taking control of what they want to do. That was my soap box. (laughs)

Iyer: That is great! You covered a lot that I wanted to touch upon! (laughs) You touched upon the young lady who mentioned that the teacher in second grade told her, “You wouldn’t go to college.” I think that happens with a number of these children. I saw on your video, where you said, “We focus on your capabilities rather than your disabilities.”

Levand: Right.

Iyer: I thought that was extremely refreshing. How do you talk to the teaching staff at Notre Dame to look at the abilities of these students and focus on their strengths rather than focusing on what they cannot do?

Levand: We do provide professional development for them as well, which is another one of those non-academic complements. When I’m doing presentations or consulting, I always point that out. We have to build bridges and work together, especially for professors, because they typically don’t have an education certificate. They haven’t gone through how to educate a diverse population. Their assumption is—and it’s true—all of our students come in under the same standards. They have to have the same grade point. Their standardized testing is looked at, and all of that. They’re there under the same standards. But what we do with the professors, because most of our students typically have had to work harder and work more than a neurotypical student. So our students stand out in a college classroom because they don’t have their computer open in front of them. They’re listening intently to the professor. And they’re the ones asking questions and for clarification.

So typically, the professors like our students better than they like most students, because most college students will walk in and they may have their phone out. I hear the professors say that all the time. Where our students have learned, “OK, I want to do well. I know what it takes for me to do well. That means listening, being an active listener and an active participant.” They kind of love it.

What we have seen on the autism spectrum, if we have some students who have Tourette’s and they’re interrupting the class a lot, we’ve handed our professors some tools to deal with that, whether that’s pulling a student aside and saying, “I’m going to use a key word or some kind of a physical motion, and that will tell you that you’re interrupting and need to let other people talk.” Or, “We’re going to stop talking about this now and we’ll talk about it later.” So we’re empowering professors who have no educational background whatsoever to deal with the interruptions. What they’re seeing is that these students are still some of the brightest, some of their best students.

Iyer: That’s very good. The center promotes a holistic approach, I’d like to get a little more on what that means.

Levand: A holistic approach to us is, when a student’s coming to college, it’s a lifestyle change. In their progress meetings, the progress advisor will talk to them about, “How are things going with friends?” They may even talk to them dating or relationships outside of the college academic arena. We look at our students and we want to make sure that they’re having a positive experience overall.

We also want them to keep fostering their other interests. If we have a student who loves performing arts, we may say, “We’re going to put you in contact with our theater director. Let’s see if you can try out for a play or be stage crew,” or whatever it may be. We don’t only look at them for what they’re doing in the classroom. We don’t ever stop there. We hold a lot of social events. We do them both center-sponsored, where it will be just a group of Thrive students, and we may take them bowling or to a professional sporting event. One of the things we do in Cleveland is take them on the city’s Rapid Transit system. When our students have to do an internship—many of our majors require them—they’ll have to make their way downtown, so we will take them on the Rapid, because a lot of them have never used public transportation.

We’ll also take them out to dinner and say, “OK, if you’re in a business setting and you have to go out for a business lunch or a business meeting, this is what we would do.” We do a lot of modeling for them, a lot of role-playing, but we never, ever stop just at what’s going on in their courses. It takes every piece of what the student is experiencing in those college years.

Notre Dame Collage Teaching at Thrive
Individual, subject-specific tutoring provided by degreed professionals

Iyer: That’s really refreshing, because a lot of attention is paid to academic strengths, and these students bring so much more to the table with other abilities they may have. You never know where their talents will take them.

Levand: And of course for so many of these students, because academics has been such a struggle, their self-esteem is coming from those other interests. So you want to keep fostering them, and you also want them to be comfortable with new situations, which so many times our students are so hesitant to try. We do a lot of things, even with career and job fairs, where they’ll be like, “I don’t want to go into that big setting. I don’t want to see a hundred persons looking at me to see if they want to employ me.” So we’ll say, “Let’s go together.” We’ll take a group of 10 or 20 students, and we’ll stand in the background and say, “Target three or four companies you want to introduce yourself to and hand a résumé to. If you get concerned or nervous, we’ll be sitting over here. Come talk to us and we’ll answer your questions in real-time with feedback.” As opposed to, “I went and did this. It was a bad experience. I froze. I won’t ever do it again.”

Iyer: What are your success stories in terms of students being employed outside of the Thrive Learning Center? How have they done?

Levand: The majority of them have done really well. Obviously, a lot of them are employed in their major, but a lot aren’t. I think that’s true of any student. But the thing that has helped us the most is that we educate the community as well. Like I said, our students have to have internships, and while they’re doing their internships, we’ll visit. We’ll shadow them and see how the student’s doing. We say to the employers, “If you want us to help you understand what our student needs, we will do that. We will only do that for the internships, because through the internships we hope to empower the students to do that on their own, to understand what it is they need to be successful in the job they are doing.

We’ve had great success with that. We have a program called the Professional Engagement Program, where we bring business professionals in and run mock interviews for our students. Because we don’t ever want our students going into an interview with stress and anxiety. We try to prepare them. And as those business people come in, they see what we do and they see the talents of our students. I think there’s still a long way to go, though, overall in the business community. I think so many corporations are hesitant to hire students. We also tell our students that they don’t need to identify. If they feel they can go through the job interview and secure the job and do it without identifying with a learning disability, then go ahead and do it. But again, that’s their personal choice.

We also help them make that decision as to when and where. I was just on the phone with an alumnus who runs the Cleveland Clinic Summer Treatment Program for students who need behavioral modification, so mostly ADHD. And he’s done that ever since he was a student. He started with the program when he was a student at Notre Dame, and he became a counselor there. So he’s done it for 10 years, and now he’s running the program, because like a lot of our students, they want to give back. He says, “A lot of people helped me. I want to be able to help in the same way.” They feel the enrichment in that. It has worked out really well.

We also have an alumni group program for those students who may have gone out and gotten a job that may not be in their major, and still want to find something in their major. A lot of times they still need a little extra scaffolding or maybe their major was what they wanted, but now they find that the jobs they can get in their major aren’t what they thought they would be doing with that major. Two to three years down the line, we have students who come back to us and say, “What do I do now?” But we have about an 80 percent success rate, which is good, I think.

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Iyer: Yes, that’s really good! And even your retention rate of students coming back to the program is good. That speaks to the success of the program.

Levand: I agree.

Iyer: You said you’re limiting the enrollment to 100 students. I’m sure the demand that you’re seeing is far, higher. I’m sure it’s difficult to cull from the pool of applicants, how do you limit it to 100 students?

Levand: Because we are a small college, the intent of the Thrive Learning Center has always been to be about 10 percent of the total undergraduate population at the college, because we do want these students to have a true college experience. We don’t want them to feel like, “I’m going to this college made for students with learning disabilities.” We’ve always had the intent to keep it to 10 percent of the population. We also feel that that’s the number of students a professor can manage and successfully help as well. We give presentations all the time to prospective high school students and families, and I say, “There’s not a one-size-fits-all for every student, even for students with learning disabilities looking for support. The spectrum of support that is out there now is huge. You can’t assume that just because a college says they have a college support center for students with learning disabilities, that it’s the same as the next college support center you’ll see. You have to look at the college, look at the size of it. Do you want to be in a college where the undergraduate population is 1,000, 15,000, 20,000, or 30,000? Do you want to be in an urban or a suburban setting? And then you have to factor in, where is the support? So maybe I’m OK with a 1,000-person college because the support and the personalized experience I’ll get will make up for not going to the 40,000-person university, where I would just be a number and probably have the same number of friends or even less, and support wouldn’t be there for me.”

Mary Jo Levand,
Mary Jo Levand, Director of the Thrive Learning Center.

I tell everybody, “Do your homework. Look at everything you think you could possibly want.” We also have a limited number of majors, so the number of majors you’ll get at a big university versus the number at a smaller university should matter. That doesn’t mean you can’t come to the smaller university. We have programs like a three-plus-two program with Case Western Reserve University, where the students do three years at Notre Dame College and then go on to Case Western Reserve University for their two years of engineering specialty. It’s automatic. If you do this program and start it during your first year at Notre Dame and then graduate in those three years, you can go on to Case Western Reserve. It’s the same with zoology.

You have to figure out what you want. A lot of students we talk to want to go to culinary school, which most universities don’t offer. It has to be the right fit for the student, and that’s what we look for. Since we’ve been doing it for 15 years, we try to fit the student, and we try to meet them where they are. We’re not trying to fit them to our program. We’re trying to see if our program will fit them.

Iyer: Where do the majority of your students come from?

Levand: The majority of them come from the Ohio area. I can remember this very vividly myself, because I knew my child had a learning disability, and I knew that college was going to be very anxiety-ridden and stressful, so I wanted her close by. I let her look, but she came to the same conclusion. She wanted her freshman year to be some place that if she wanted to come home for the weekend or we needed to see her, it wouldn’t be difficult. That’s what we see with the majority of our students and our families. They’re within a three- to four-hour radius from us so that the students are away from home, but they’re close enough that there’s access to family.

Iyer: But I’m sure that as word gets out about your program, there will be so much more interest nationally.

Levand: Yes. Actually, we are seeing an increase. We’ve had about 10 to 15 students now from other states and even other countries, because we are a division two athletic school. We get many students from out of the country. And that’s interesting, because they have a different set of rules and regulations for accommodations, so when we’re looking at the accommodations they had in high school, it’s pretty interesting to see the differences.

Iyer: You’ve talked about COVID a little and how you’ve dealt with the challenges during the pandemic. How did that impact your students? We’ve heard so much about mental health issues. And how do you think it will impact them in the future?

Levand: Yes. It really isolated our students. A lot of them who are in between courses will be with our Thrive Learning Center, whether they’re getting tutoring or they’re doing their progress advising. We have what I call a natural study/chill spot where they can be. We did that intentionally, because our students tend to be anxious, so if they find an area that they’re comfortable in, we want them to be there. We have this spot where they can study privately, talk with one another, or have lunch. So many of them don’t make the first move to reach out to one another. It’s more, “Oh, hey, I see you. Now you’re in my mind, and I’ll start talking to you.” Whereas, “Oh, I think I’ll call so-and-so and maybe we can get together this Friday” or in this COVID situation, “Maybe we’ll just have a Zoom meeting with the three of us.”

I do think, and a lot of them told me this, video games were a great way for them to get together, because they could all be in their respective homes, yet they were still interacting. So for all those years where we were like, “Get off the video games, stop playing those,” I know so many of the parents were saying, “I am so thankful for those video games right now, because I can hear my child in the other room talking to their friends and playing those games.” So that was great.

We did Zoom movie nights and things like that. What I will take away from this is that our students are much more adaptable than we ever give them credit for. We did see a big slide with the whole virtual learning, so we took our stack of 20 last March and turned them over to Team. That was a learning curve for our staff, who had never used technology before to tutor, because for us it was so important to have that student be right there with you, to see their face, to know what they were feeling. So much of what we learn from our students is based on their body language or on how they’re saying something.

They were scared to put their faces on Zoom, so we let them turn off their cameras and then finally we were like, “We’re not getting enough feedback. We’re not getting enough of what we need.” So we had them turn around. Now, they’re as comfortable as can be with that. They’re the ones teaching us how to do it and they’re the ones saying, “Yeah, let’s just do this virtually.” We’ve had an increase in the number of tutoring appointments. I think they’re amazingly adaptable and I think if you can get them over the hurdles of, “This is something new and unknown” to “I’m good with this,” then they’re wonderful.

Iyer: I also read that you will offer adult norm testing. What does that entail?

Levand: There’s psycho-educational testing for young people all the time, because you have the IDEA act and they can get accommodation. But then what we see is, we have those students who are going to college and want to go on to grad school or sit for the LSAT or MCAT, and they need psycho-educational testing at an adult level. And here in Cleveland it has always been so hard to find. We can find child testing wherever. And we thought, “OK, wait a second. We’re educating these students so that they can go on to grad school, to law school, or they can sit for the certified public accounting exam, but we’re not giving them the tools to do it.” So we partnered with our counseling center and we got some donations from parents of students who were doing just that, and now we can provide psycho-educational testing for those kinds of purposes, but we can also provide it for our student body.

A lot of times, now that we have the Thrive Learning Center at Notre Dame College, professors come to us and say, “I have this student in class. Are they a part of the Thrive Learning Center?” I’m like, “Give me a name, and I’ll let you know.” And if they’re not, I’ll say no, and they’re like, “But I think they’ve got an undiagnosed learning disability they’ve been living with for a long time.” So now we are able to test those students and we are able to help them and say, “Oh, you’re right, they did. And the reason they’ve been performing like this is because they’ve had coping skills that they’ve used to accommodate, or because they haven’t been getting the help they want.” So we’re using the psycho-educational testing for those students within our college as well to help them understand that they may be a different learner and it may just be the way they’re being.

Iyer: You mentioned that you’re teaching students to advocate for themselves?

Levand: We know in reality there isn’t much self-advocacy going on in the high school arena because they have the accommodations, their parents are with them, and they have the intervention specialist. A lot of times I hear the intervention specialist say, “Yeah, they need to be self-advocates by this time,” as they’re writing out their assignments for them, as they’re telling them what to tell their teachers. And I’m like, “Yes, that is very true.”

But I also know that my own neurotypical 18-year-old would have never been a self-advocate. So the expectation levels for self-advocacy at that age, I think, are above and beyond. It’s a wonderful theory, but it’s not reality. So we start helping them from where they are and move on. (laughs) We don’t have any expectations as to the level of self-advocacy.

Iyer: What else do you see in the future regarding their needs? What do you want to implement in the future for the Thrive Learning Center?

Levand: Well, I do want to be able to open it up to more and more students. I am in discussions with the college about raising the percentage of students we can have, because as you said, there’s a greater and greater need. You see the percentage of students being served with accommodations in high school growing every year. Those students are very capable and able, and they should be entitled to the appropriate college education. And I just hope that I bring to the entire college and higher education environment the knowledge and the notion that these students belong there.

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As far as specific types of things, I’d like to continue to add to our program. It’s always born out of where we see students not doing well, where they fall down or trip, and how we can help them. One of the biggest places I would like to see change is educating the professors. I think the more we educate the professors and the more we educate the college campus culture overall, I think the better off everyone will be.

Iyer: True. And to add to that, the more we educate employers in the future, I think, is a win-win for them.

Levand: Right, and I hope students understand. I see it in the younger generations; I see it in the other college students on campus. I see it in my own children. They are not judging any of these students for learning differently. I would love to take away the word “disability.” I would like it to be “learning differently.” I know there’s a big contention on both sides as to what that means. But “disability” has such a negative connotation, and there should be nothing negative about the fact that these students learn differently, that their brain function just works differently than others.

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