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Choosing College Courses: Heeding Advice From Adults vs. Peers

A mother tells how her daughter learned the hard way whose advice to trust when choosing college courses.

By Emmy Fearn, M.A.

When my daughter Dria entered the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in 1999, her Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) was properly-documented, and she had completed the additional educational testing required to receive accommodations. When the UCLA Office of Student Disabilities (OSD) reviewed her documentation, one of their educational specialists noted Dria's apparent difficulty with foreign language, based on her high school transcript which included one lone "C" in Spanish among otherwise uniformly high grades. Dria described the extraordinary effort she had expended just to earn a passing grade in Spanish. The specialist then administered additional tests which confirmed Dria's poor prognosis for learning a foreign language and revealed her (previously unidentified) reading disability. Because of her disabilities, Dria was given the option of taking alternate classes to fulfill the university's foreign language requirement.

Asking Peers (not Parents or Professionals) for Academic Advice

While considering which classes she might enroll in for her major, Dria sought the advice of her college classmates. Several classmates - none of whom have learning disabilities - mentioned the linguistics course as being interesting and not too demanding for a freshman. When Dria told her father and me that she intended to enroll in the class, we both wondered whether linguistics would be a good match for her particular strengths and challenges. We suggested that she ask her adviser in OSD whether linguistics was the best choice for her. Dria responded (as would most kids her age) that her friends had assured her the course was "easy" and that she would do well. However, she also decided to talk to the professor and TA in advance "just in case," and both of them also reassured Dria that she would be "fine." Not wanting to be unduly negative about her plans, her dad and I decided to back down.

Lessons in Linguistics and Learning Style

Unfortunately, our concerns proved to be well-founded. While studying linguistics, Dria was expected to memorize the phonetic alphabet — a daunting task for someone who never mastered sounding out words. Dria now admits that she worked harder to earn a "C-" in linguistics than in any other class she took at UCLA, including those in which she earned "A+'s." In retrospect she shakes her head and wonders, "What was I thinking when I signed up for that class?"

Struggling through linguistics class taught Dria a valuable lesson: the way she experiences education may be very different from how her peers (and professors) without LD do. She also learned that other people's advice might not always be appropriate for her. Dria learned the hard way that she needed to evaluate decisions from her own perspective and that it is to her benefit to consider viewpoints and expertise that she had previously discounted or simply not sought. She especially began to appreciate what a valuable resource the Office for Students with Disabilities was, and she became proactive about asking OSD for advice.

To her credit, Dria quickly learned how to satisfy her own particular study needs by disciplining herself to outline her class notes and reading material, and by forming small study groups to enhance learning and make it more enjoyable for her. These study habits helped her succeed at UCLA, where she was elected to Mortar Board National Honor Society, and was active in student government. She also realized, with input and support from the Office for Students with Disabilities (and her parents!), that her self-discipline and work habits would help her succeed in nearly any educational or vocational environment, which has always been important to our achievement-oriented daughter. And during the rest of her college career, she became a self-described "crasher" who would sign up for more classes than she planned to take and then audit professors to ensure that they engaged her and complemented her learning style.

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