Best of friends
At Grand Valley State University, Disability Support Resources is aiding students with mental disabilities in a unique way with the Campus Links program.
“Really what Campus Links is, (that) it’s part of a comprehensive system of support on campus,” said Ken Pierson, a GVSU senior and mentor for Campus Links.
The program pairs students who have mental disabilities with a student mentor who lives with them and provides support whenever needed.
Cullen McCurdy, a junior and mentee in the program, is on the autism spectrum and said that he has enjoyed being a part of Campus Links.
“(The best part) is having someone I can talk to when I need to talk about something,” he said. “Having a mentor and a group of friends with similar difficulties, it’s easier to empathize with someone when you know what they’re going through and why they’re going through something.”
While DSR is more academically centered on helping students on campus, McCurdy said that Campus Links is more centered on helping students socially.
“DSR gives more academic considerations while Campus Links is more social interaction,” he said. “It’s less going into an office with an appointment, but just having something to talk about and hanging out, even though we don’t always get along.”
Pierson said that there are several other universities doing similar programs to Campus Links, but that GVSU is doing it well.
“The increasing number of college students on the spectrum necessitates programs like this being created, and we’re one of the first to do so,” he said.
Campus Links is only in its second year at GVSU, and even in this short time the program has already grown. It went from six to nine participants from fall 2012 to 2013, and added a graduate assistant to help with administration of the program, said Kathleen VanderVeen, director of DSR.
“All six students who were participants last year returned this year,” VanderVeen said. “We have a few different mentors and some that came back, but they have all gained a lot.”
All the mentors and mentees in Campus Links also take a class together where they discuss how other people view the world and the way people think about things. Students have also created a club on campus called Students Toward Autism Advocacy and Respect (STAAR) that brings them all together for service activities and social events, Pierson said.
“Being able to experience a variety of perceptions and ways of processing the world is extremely rewarding,” Pierson said. “Some of my best friends are in Campus Links.”
Jessica Marzi, the Campus Links graduate assistant, said that students being mentored in the program have enjoyed the level of support they have received.
“I’ve heard a lot of positive things and have seen a lot of positive; going from feeling like they don’t know what to do, to having someone to guide them and be their friend,” she said. “It helps them meet a lot more people.”
Marzi said that she hopes the program keeps growing to help more students on campus, whether with mentors who live with them or just providing them with another level of support.
The mentors and mentees for the program grow close to each other and become good friends with others in Campus Links, said Debbie Wright, a senior at GVSU being mentored in the program.
Just before transferring to GVSU last year, Wright was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and was told about the possibility of the Campus Links program getting started.
“I decided to try for it, because having to go through the normal setting seemed more overwhelming,” she said.
From a mentee standpoint, having the extra support of a mentor makes everyday life easier to deal with, Wright added. “There are people I can talk to and complain to,” she said. “I can be really shy with people I don’t know. I do worry how people will react to me if I say something wrong, but with Campus Links, I don’t need to worry about that because they already know that about me.”
Caitlin Reese, a Campus Links mentor and junior at GVSU, said that what she most enjoys about the program is the relationships created.
“There are people who live next door and down the hall that I can come to with anything I need,” she said. “The people that I mentor are my first go-to on campus. It’s like a built-in friend system. Campus Links can be summed up in one word—accepting.”