Different Minds Working Together to SOAR
Posted by Sheryl on December 11, 2015 9:45 AM
“The world needs different kinds of minds to work together.” - Dr. Temple Grandin, professor of animal science, best-selling author, and autism activist
As the mother of a son on the autism spectrum, I have come to appreciate more fully the concept of a “different mind” and what it can accomplish, especially in collaboration with others. I’ve always thought that the more we can encourage him to do, especially in line with his interests, the better off he is. My husband and I have encouraged our son to try new things, but we’ve also fully supported him in interests he loves, especially music and performing arts.
The SOAR program at Marywood also fully embraces that can-do perspective of different minds working together. SOAR is an acronym for “Students on Campus Achieving Results.” Designed to provide students with autism real life experiences in an age-appropriate environment, the SOAR program began at Marywood in the fall of 2008. SOAR provides an opportunity for students with autism who, instead of continuing at the high school level, can come to Marywood and get in-depth employment training with employment practice on-site, while enjoying a college atmosphere. Up to eight students can be in the program at a given time, and students attend for two years.
Seven years into the program, all involved are very pleased with the results. SOAR students learn more about their interests and talents and are matched to suitable jobs at Marywood in positions like housekeeping, information technology, cafeteria, human resources, and, recently, the nursing department. They also learn practical life skills, such as using the bus system, going to job fairs, doing community service while receiving job training, and even learning skills like computer management.
The students in the program are only one component of its successful equation, however. The people and departments on campus who work with the SOAR students are the other part, because social interaction is essential to the learning and life experiences of students with autism. Being able to just “hang out” with other students is a huge benefit to all involved—different kinds of minds working, playing, and having fun together. These relationships are what make the program so distinctive and life-changing. Student volunteers are a crucial part of SOAR’s ongoing success.
During spring semesters, a group of graduate students volunteer to work with the SOAR students and serve as social coaches. Some sample lessons taught include: small talk; appropriate conversation topics; facial expressions, body language, and personal space; and résumé building/job searches. At the end of the lessons, the students are given a homework assignment that they must complete with their social coach partner by the following class. These assignments are designed to make the students practice and use their newly learned skills in the Marywood community.
Samantha Littleford is a graduate student in Marywood’s school psychology program. Last spring was her first time as a social coach for the SOAR program, and she plans on volunteering again in the upcoming spring semester.
“Volunteering as a social coach is providing me with experience in working with students with autism. It allows me to learn about ASD and individuals who are on the spectrum,” Samantha said. “However, being a social coach provides so much more than that. While getting the experience of working with the students is extremely educational and valuable, the bonds you make with the students, the fun you have while working with them, and all the lessons the students teach you are far more meaningful and rewarding. Beyond this, you not only get to watch the students grow and learn throughout the semester, but you get to see just how much you’ve learned and grown from working with them.”
Ross Capoccia, also a graduate student in the school psychology program, has served as a social coach for the SOAR program for the past two spring semesters.
“What I got from the experience is seeing beyond a label to know a person. The students are good people. They change others with their kindness and being who they are,” said Ross. “Attending two SOAR graduations and seeing how much support they have on campus is incredible. Looking back to when I was teaching social skills, I do not always see it as me teaching them, but them teaching all of us who worked with them. It was a great experience working with the SOAR students, and I know that anyone who works with them will be rewarded for it.”
Brianna Luppino, a student in Marywood’s Psy.D. program, agreed that the experience of being involved with SOAR has been “absolutely incredible.”
Brianna said, “I volunteered with similar programs in the past, but I still wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into. Overall, the experience has been life changing for me. These students have impacted me more than they even know. They have shown me how to be compassionate and caring toward everyone. They have taught me to remember that everyone is dealing with their own struggles, and that everyone has their own strengths and special qualities. I’ve only volunteered with the SOAR program for one semester, but I can’t wait to go back next semester to meet some of the new kids and catch up with some of the people I’ve worked with already!”
While only graduate students in the school psychology program and doctoral students in the Psy.D. program can be social coaches, the SOAR program welcomes student clubs on graduate and undergraduate levels, as well as interested individual students representing every major, to volunteer their time as lunch buddies, job coaches, and even to just play games with the SOAR students on “Fun Fridays.”