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HomeLearning DifficultiesHealth & DevelopmentLife After High School

Identified With LD in Grad School: A Struggling Student Reflects

A culturally diverse graduate student with LD and AD/HD shares her insights and advice with parents and younger kids.

By Jodie Dawson, Psy.D.

What would you like to tell us about yourself?

My name is Eva G. I was born in the former Soviet Union, but grew up in a big city in the United States. I like to spend time with friends, travel, dance, write in my journal, and watch independent films, theater performances, and Public Broadcasting System specials. I am a very caring, giving person who's full of energy.

In May 2002, I graduated with a Master's degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. My goal in life is to empower people and make them feel special.

When did you notice you were having problems in school?

I wasn't identified with a learning disability until graduate school, but I remember struggling with language and grammar when I was younger.

In third grade, I was in tears over writing a report on Hawaii because I didn't know what to say. I remember feeling frustrated and never did turn in the paper.

I transferred from a private to a public school in the 4th grade and felt academically ahead. I was in a magnet program with a gifted curriculum. I knew only smart kids got into these programs, but I still had difficulty writing and memorizing.

Excuses for my struggles could always be explained by my anxiety or the challenge my parents had helping me with my homework when English was their second language. I didn't understand I had a learning disability.

It wasn't until college that things really started to get tough. I had difficulty writing my thoughts and ideas on paper, and I always turned my papers in late. Memorizing and studying were impossible. I knew I wasn't doing as well as I could. I have the belief that if I want something, I can have it if I just try hard enough. I felt so bad because I kept trying and failing. It was disheartening to spend hours studying and not accomplish anything.

I plugged away until graduate school when I became completely overwhelmed. Everything was taking me so much time to get through. Finally, one-and-a-half years ago, my academic advisor suggested I get tested.

What did the assessment tell you?

I was eager to find out the results but also very sad. I was scared of having to be dependent on medication, for fear of feeling powerless and of being judged by others. But I felt a sense of urgency to get the help I needed to be successful.

I have Attention Deficit Disorder (inattentive type) and a disorder of written expression, with some indication of a disorder of oral expression. My reading comprehension is at a 10th-grade level. My writing fluency, how quickly I form sentences, is at a 5th-grade level.

What I used to think of as my personality traits are really characteristics of AD/HD. I am outgoing, have a high energy level, lack inhibition, and have difficulty paying attention. I've come to admire my determination and how far I've come, but I'm still shocked that I write at a 5th-grade level!

How did your cultural background influence your learning?

In the former Soviet Union, disabilities in general are not accepted. This led to misperceptions about learning disabilities, like equating them with mental retardation.

From my experience, immigrants often want more and constantly struggle to be greater. Being seen as above average is important.

People always told me I wrote like an immigrant. I miss words, don't focus my ideas, and have poor grammar and spelling. This was one excuse for why I wasn't doing well in my writing.

What would have been helpful to you when you were younger?

  • To know it was OK if I didn't succeed or wasn't perfect.
  • To have more hands-on lessons because that's how I learn best.

What strategies help you succeed?

I found it's the little things that really can make a difference. I've been working with my LD/AD/HD Specialist at the University to learn strategies to help me complete graduate school successfully:

  • Estimating how much time is needed for tasks to set realistic expectations and timelines.
  • Breaking down big tasks into smaller pieces of work.
  • Outlining papers and readings, even though it can be a drag.
  • Creating a buddy system to motivate me to study. (It's easier to sit and focus with someone else in the room, called the "body double" for people with AD/HD.)
  • Using accountability and check-ins with other people and monitoring my progress.
  • Taking time to make good decisions instead of decisions on the fly.
  • Using campus and community resources.
  • Coming to terms with using external motivators rather than relying on internal motivators.

What advice do you have for parents?

  • Don't see your kids as stupid; see them for who they really are and know that "smart" comes in a lot of shapes.
  • Don't single your child (with LD or AD/HD) out; pay attention to your other kids, too.
  • Don't put limitations or your own personal expectations on your child.
  • Educate yourself and others about learning differences and make sure to dispel any misconceptions; share information.

What advice do you have for younger students?

  • Try different things to find a better fit.
  • Just because something is easy doesn't mean it's the "easy way out."
  • Accept and value your strengths.
  • Avoid comparing yourself to others and trying to live up to other people's expectations of you.
  • Don't limit yourself, and don't give up.
  • Find other students who can support you so you won't feel lonely.
  • Realize you aren't that different from other kids. You have many strengths, and, in the long run, it doesn't matter that things take you longer. Great thoughts take more time, and yours are worthwhile!
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