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College Student With Learning Disabilities Designs His Own Future

Success has come one challenging step at a time for this persistent young man with learning disabilities.

By Linda Broatch, M.A.

A drafting class offered at a local technical school in Tennessee was just what Charles Rachal needed when he was a junior in high school. It turned out to be the first step in a challenging and rewarding journey that he couldn't even have imagined at the time. Today, just five years later, Charles is completing his fourth year of architecture studies at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. This coming August, he and 30 fellow Wentworth students will travel to Berlin for fall semester to study architectural design and history.

Identified with learning disabilities in sixth grade, Charles has always struggled in school. Both reading and math are difficult for him. Even now, with college graduation in sight, he seems a little surprised at what he has accomplished. "Every semester [during the first two years at Wentworth] there were courses where I thought, 'This will be the end of me!' It was one of the roughest times of my life," he adds. "Looking back on it now, I don't know how I did it. But also, the challenges made it a positive experience."

At the age of 22, he has already done several years of serious thinking about how to persist in his goals, in spite of the inevitable discouragement and obstacles. During middle school and high school, it seemed that, no matter how hard he worked, he rarely made good grades - and regularly made bad ones. Fortunately, his parents didn't pressure him about his grades, except when they thought he hadn't given a class his best effort. "Around sixth or seventh grade," Charles recalls, "I was definitely pushed to do my best. Even when I was bringing home awful grades, I didn't get punished for it, but they would tell me to try harder. My mom would tell me, 'You're not dumb; you just have a [learning] problem. A lot of people have it. Do your best.'"

Even with his parents' understanding and support, however, he remembers becoming very discouraged about school. By eighth grade he was in a pretty constant state of what he describes as "sluggish." Charles's mom decided, as she explained it to him at the time, that it might be good for him to have "someone to talk to." That's how he met the therapist who helped him discover what has remained one of his most valuable coping strategies - running.

"He told me that it would be good," Charles remembers, "instead of sitting around sulking - not his exact words, obviously - to get out and run and get my mind off things - that it would make me feel better and think better. And that was the case. I'd always heard that, but until I actually applied it to myself, I didn't really understand where they were coming from."

Although he can't remember a particular moment in high school when he started to think about goals for his future, he does remember a slow shift away from focusing so much on his struggles. During after-school hours, when he wasn't practicing with the school band, Charles says, he had a lot of time by himself to think. "I can't really pinpoint a specific moment when the 'light came on' in my head," he says. "But I can remember slowly having a more positive outlook, wanting to get more involved, and to think about the future a little more. Instead of thinking, 'Well, I'm not getting any better,' I kept focused on what was going to happen in the future. It was just having a different outlook."

The opportunity during his junior year of high school to take a half-day of drafting and Computer Assisted Design (CAD) classes at nearby Tennessee Technical Center at Crossville (TTC) helped shift his thinking about career possibilities. "It was an encouragement," Charles remembers, "when I saw older students getting into these computer models, and to think about maybe going to school to learn how to do the computer work, with a focus on design. It also was an encouragement toward architecture because I knew I would need to have some of these same skills in architecture."

Linda Broatch has worked for many years in nonprofit organizations that serve the health and education needs of children. She has an M.A. in education, with a focus in child development.