Honors Mentor/Mentee Trip: Newport

Newport Group Photo

On Saturday, April 18th the Honors Mentoring Program hosted a trip to Newport, Rhode Island. While in Newport, mentors and mentees first visited The Elms and participated in the Servant Tour. On the Servant Tour we were able to walk through the staff quarters, see the coal cellar and boiler room in the basement, and witness the magnificent view of the ten-acre estate from the roof! After this, the group went to lunch at The Red Parrot in downtown Newport. Lunch was followed by a self-guided tour of The Breakers. This tour of the Vanderbilt home gave us the opportunity to experience the grandest mansion in all of Newport! The trip ended with some of us exploring the grounds at The Breakers, while others went on the famous Cliff Walk.

Check out some of the pictures from this great event!

– K.A.

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Life on the Spectrum: I am a BSU Student with Autism

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I am ok.

Because April is Autism Awareness Month, I decided to post accordingly. Last month, I promised to post more pieces pertaining to social justice issues and I would like to begin with my take on identifying as a person with a disability and how it impacts my experience at BSU. The views expressed in this piece are my own and are not representative of the BSU Honors Program community as a whole.

Today was difficult. I walked quickly back to my dorm room after class, head down, squinting from the brightness outside and avoiding eye contact with any passerby the whole way. The last thing I needed was an unexpected encounter with a friend or classmate; I didn’t think I had it in me to make friendly conversation.

A truck roars past me while I’m on the sidewalk, blowing my hair in my face. I cringe and tear up at the sound. I bite down hard on my lip and will myself to stay composed. A lot of things have gone wrong today.

In my room, I turn off the lights, close the blinds, and put on earplugs. I change into a t-shirt and try to reorient myself. I have 3 classes on Tuesday; the last one is three hours long. If I don’t rest in between them, I won’t have the stamina to meet people’s demands. Conversation is calculated, it takes effort. Looking people in the eye is uncomfortable and exhausting.

This is just one piece of one day in the life of just one person living with autism. When I was four years old, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by difficulty with social skills and communication, repetitive, rigid thoughts and behaviors and issues with sensation and perception. Stories like these are pretty common in the blogosphere because they are completely accurate depictions of what life can look like on autism spectrum.

Unfortunately, the vast range of experiences and almost unfathomable internal diversity of people with autism is commonly diminished and essentialized. Public perception of autism is dominated by a narrative of tragedy where autistics are miserable and their existence damages families and burdens the public. Far too frequently, we are reduced to the stuff of somber commercials and billboards pleading you to help find a “cure.”

Every so often, I write and speak about my experiences because I reject this script; our humanity should not be simplified to fit everyone else’s expectations. Because I believe that myself and people like me are whole, I am sharing not only my struggles, but also the things that make me whole. To help neurotypicals* understand me and people like me, I try to draw back the curtain and invite them into my head.

At BSU, my disability is invisible most of the time. I could walk right by somebody and they wouldn’t know I have autism. Somebody with autism could walk right by me and I wouldn’t know it, either. At work and in class, I “pass” as neurotypical most of the time. That’s part of the challenge of high-functioning autism; the more successful I am at appearing “normal,” the less people anticipate me having difficulty with anything. But internally, I’m always working hard to compensate for the things I’m not wired to do.

I learned very early how and when to isolate myself to cope with overstimulation.

I learned very early how and when to isolate myself to cope with overstimulation.

The autistic brain isn’t really optimized for processing sensory input, especially a lot at one time. As a result, people with autism have a lower threshold of tolerance for sensory input, making it easy to become overstimulated in the face of one too many stressors. I am no exception. In fact, I tend to schedule most of my day around avoiding being overwhelmed. I take the least crowded routes to class. If I don’t have a lot of time between classes, I get food at Bear’s Den and eat alone in my room. Tilly at max capacity is a sensory nightmare for me with all the ambient speaking, music, and smells, so I eat strategically when it’s at its least populated. I wear earplugs to study and to sleep. And when I sleep, I am nothing short of extremely particular about which blanket I use.

Though my sensory issues cause me a great deal of frustration, there is also some beauty in them. I am especially appreciative of the stimulation I find pleasant because I experience it vibrantly and intensely. When it’s bright outside, I think I see the sky a little bluer. When I sit in my dorm room and listen to the rain, I think that the sound might hit my ears more sharply. One of my favorite things to do is use the swing in my backyard because the sensation is extremely soothing. Still, even the good things are part of the game that is avoiding the bad.

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My mother kept this chart on our fridge when I was a child to help me learn how facial expressions show what people are thinking and feeling.

When I’m not trying to process my environment, I’m usually trying to figure out people. Autistics by and large lack the innate social finesse of neurotypicals and the means to understand social cues. That’s why, in explaining the social challenges of Aspies**, we’re often compared to aliens visiting from another planet. For me, looking someone in the eye and going with the flow of a conversation are intensely conscious processes. The nuances of language like nonverbal cues, figures of speech and sarcasm are often lost on me. Though I have a theoretical understanding of all of these things, recognizing and reacting appropriately to them in the moment is another story. That disconnect can be very aggravating. Sometimes I don’t pick up on what another person is thinking or feeling, and I say the wrong thing. Naturally, I spend way too much time mentally critiquing my interactions with others long after the fact.

The actual speech patterns of people with Asperger’s are different too. We tend to use unusually formal, pedantic language. When I was younger, my vocabulary was sometimes isolating because my peers would mock me for using “big words” in casual conversation. More recently, it’s become something I love about myself because I can be articulate with ease and my friends [affectionately] joke about me being a robot. I can write impressive essays and fiercely debate with my classmates. When people don’t understand what I say, they usually just nod and agree. Things can really work out in your favor when you speak like a living SAT prep book.

At the end of the day, I’m neither thrilled about being autistic nor desperately wishing to be neurotypical. Like many other autistics, I prefer to think of myself as wired differently rather than neurologically inferior or other. While having Asperger’s presents many challenges, especially in college, I have an appreciation for the ways my brain is unique.

If your understanding of autism was ever limited to anecdotal knowledge or portrayals in popular culture, it can be difficult to understand why someone might want to deviate from the popular narrative that prioritizes struggle despite their very real pain and challenges. While I validate those challenges and see the importance of talking about them, I also don’t want to be constrained by them. I wrote this post to demonstrate that autistics are complex, whole, and valuable. Life with autism is, in fact, so varied and complicated that I couldn’t possibly encapsulate the breadth of experiences in one post. We are so complex that there is only one thing that I can say is true of all of us, and I will leave you with that sentiment:

I am absolutely certain that we have too much to give to the world to be mistakes.

-M.S.

For more information, visit Wrong Planet for articles written by high-functioning autistics about their experiences. You can also read up on neurodiversity or check out the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network.

*”Neurotypical” is a word often used in the autistic community to describe a person without autism in lieu of terms with negative implications of the autistic brain, ie “normal.”

**”Aspie” is a colloquialism for a person with Asperger’s often used in online communities for autistics.

Making the Grade in Kenya Fundraising Dinner

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On Tuesday, February 24th, the Honors Student Congress held the “Making the Grade in Kenya” fundraising dinner. The goal of this event was to raise a $2,000 scholarship for Hannah, a female student at the Beverly School of Kenya. This scholarship would cover all of Hannah’s educational cost for one year, including room and board and other educational expenses.  After a tremendous amount of hard work, I am happy to report that the Honors Student Congress surpassed this goal and raised nearly $4,000 – enough to fund Hannah for two years! This could not have been done without the work of the Honors Student Congress Service Committee and the incredible support of the Bridgewater State University faculty, staff, families, and community members. The entire BSU community came together to support this cause, and we would like to thank everyone for the outpouring of support we received; with your help we were able to double our goal!

The night began with a silent auction hour, with an array of items available to be bid on. Items up for auction included Maroon 5 concert tickets, Red Sox tickets, Hy-line tickets, BSU sweatshirts, restaurant gift cards, and much more! All the proceeds from the silent auction went directly towards Hannah’s scholarship. The remaining funds were raised through donations and the selling of 50/50 raffle tickets. During this opening hour, many people also stopped by our letter writing station, where they wrote letters to students at the Beverly School of Kenya.

After the auction, Nara Nascimento, chair of the Honors Student Congress Service Committee, welcomed everyone to the event. After this welcoming address, Emily Wiegand, the Service Committee Chair-elect, introduced Sue Swanberg, an ambassador for the Beverly School of Kenya. During her presentation, Sue Swanberg provided the audience with a detailed look at the school. Through a combination of pictures and stories of her personal experiences visiting the school, her presentation truly allowed the audience to understand the students and the mission of the Beverly School of Kenya. Following Sue Swanberg’s presentation, Abdi Lidondi, the founder of the school, provided the audience with a few words about the history of the Beverly School of Kenya.  Dinner followed, along with the announcement of the silent auction winners and the winner of the 50/50 raffle.

Thank you again to everyone who made this fundraiser a success!

For more information about the Beverly School of Kenya, visit their website at http://beverlyschoolofkenya.com/.

-K. A.

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Letter From The President of Honors Student Congress!

For the past two years I have served as President of the BSU Honors Student Congress.  I have seen this organization grow from a simple idea to a well-oiled machine with an efficient organizational structure, a concise mission statement and Constitution, and a core set of values.  As myself and the other individuals who have seen this organization through from the beginning are preparing to graduate from BSU, we cannot help but acknowledging what an integral part this organization has been in our undergraduate experience and what exactly the Honors Student Congress has meant to each of us.

So, when I think about the Honors Student Congress, what do I think about?  I think about the trailblazing students I have mentored through the Honors mentoring program.  I think of the lifelong friends and memories I have made through this organization.  I think of our advisor, Amy Couto, and the constant encouragement, support, and time that she, Dr. King, and Dr. Wiggins have dedicated not only to me, but to all of our students.  And I think of the impact we have collectively been able to make in just our two years of recognition at BSU.

It is true that all things come to an end and my time as President and my time at BSU are drawing to a close, however, I am confident the Honors Student Congress is only going to continue its growth.  My successor,  also my mentee, Adam Costa, along with all of the other individuals elected to Executive Board positions for the fall, are all truly exceptional individuals and I am looking forward to seeing what they are able to accomplish.  During my discussions with the incoming leadership of the HSC, I continue to stress the importance of community.  In becoming a larger organization we have noted the need for a set organizational structure and clear purpose, however, it is important to never forget our roots and our mission. We started this organization to establish a stronger sense of community within the honors program, to foster meaningful connections, and to build intentional leaders within our community, and we must never forget this.  In the end, we will not remember the emails we sent, the exact content of each of our meetings, or navigating the event planning process.  What we will remember are the friends we have made, the laughter we shared, and the moments we were able to make a difference.

Don’t miss out on the great events the Honors Student Congress has planned for the rest of this semester!  More Pizza and Profs, Trivia Nights, service projects, and off-campus trips are coming your way!  On behalf of the Honors Student Congress, best of luck with your midterms as well as the rest of the semester!

Kevin Costa

President, Honors Student Congress

Adventures in Nicaragua with Olga Pou-Felix

IMG_5487 Hi everyone! Over winter break, honors student Olga Pou-Felix traveled to Nicaragua on a study tour focusing on the geography of coffee. Read the interview below to find out about Olga’s adventures abroad! Thanks Olga!

– K.A.

Major, Year, & Fun Fact? Spanish – Secondary Education Concentration, Geography minor, freshman, Fun Fact: I’ve been to seven countries (but would like to go to WAY more places!)

Where did you study abroad? How long? I went on the Nicaragua study tour for two weeks (January 2nd-16th) with Dr. James Hayes-Bohanan.

What interested you in this study abroad program? Professor James is really passionate about the fair trade coffee industry and he would mention it in class (Olga was in Dr. Hayes-Bohanan’s Honors First Year Seminar: Geography of Brockton last semester). Just hearing about his experiences made me want to experience them as well. Also, I am a travel enthusiast and just love adventure!FullSizeRender

What is your favorite memory from your trip abroad? My favorite memory was probably hiking up to a waterfall, Peñas Blancas. The view was breathtaking. 

What surprised you most about your time abroad? I was pleasantly surprised by the hospitality that I found in our homestays. It’s one thing to be in someone else’s country but another thing to be in their home. When you’re in their homes they work as hard as they can to make you feel like you’re at home, which was something that I did not expect but really appreciated. 

How has your study abroad experience benefited you? I have not only reached a new level of gratitude for what I have, but the trip has made me more aware of my purchases and how I am spending my money. Going there made me want to be more aware of what I am investing my money into and the chain effect of my spending.

What is the biggest life lesson you learned while studying abroad? In general, not only in coffee now, I realize that there is someone out there who is working for everything that I am buying. As consumers whenever we purchase anything we have to realize that we are investing in something that could be extremely negative, that could be life-threatening to the person making that good, or could be positive and establishing their future and building community development; which is why we need to be educated consumers. 

IMG_58521505170_782655738437087_3204329266558938172_n What were some fun things you did during your time abroad? I climbed up a volcano and then sled down it (halfway on the board and halfway on my face – but it was fun!). In general we did a lot of fun hikes and we played games and painted a mural in a human trafficking shelter for children. We played volleyball and soccer with them. Working with the kids was not only fun, but impacting as well. 

What advice would you give to others who are thinking of studying abroad? Just do it! You learn not only a lot about another country, but a lot about yourself as well. It opens up your mind to a whole new horizon. There’s a whole world out there and some people don’t even realize it.

Where else would you like to travel to one day? Everywhere! I would like to go somewhere in Asia, I would love to go to Japan one day. I definitely want to keep exploring South and Central America and the Caribbean as well. 

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Let’s Talk about Injustice (Better)

We can do better.

We can do better.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are my own and do not represent the Bridgewater State University Honors Program as a whole.

About two weeks before winter break, I was sitting on the couch in the Office of Institutional Diversity scrolling through a particularly unpleasant Yik Yak feed. Between the usual lamenting of parking logistics and appeals for Netflix watching buddies, my feed was dominated with comments such as “can we stop talking about race?” “I’m not gonna bandwagon on hippie issues” and the intentionally dismissive #whitelivesmatter hashtag in response to the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the protesting that followed. I thought, “here is one of the most popular and telling visuals of our collective student consciousness, and it’s littered with disheartening, dismissive commentary. What kind of message does this send about our campus culture and students’ attitude towards issues of injustice?

In that moment, not a particularly good one.

A medium like Yik Yak, I understand, is not wholly or perfectly representative of the BSU student body. (And, due to its anonymous nature, it can be easily overrun by trolls.) However, it was a sharp reminder of the viewpoints that exist outside the comparatively tolerant circle I’ve built myself on campus and the implications they have on student life at BSU. If it serves to legitimize my outrage, I am hardly the first to see posts to the app as symptomatic of a larger problem. As Dr. Judith Willison told me in the office that day, “this tells us what kind of work we have left to do.”

As a student with a vested interest in how social issues are addressed and understood at my school, I take cues from an array of sources to gauge students’ opinions on current events. I operate on the premise that BSU works better when students have a comprehensive, working knowledge of social justice and the capacity to articulate their views. As an honors student, I recognize that social justice is both a cornerstone of the program and a sizable piece of my heart and brain. It is my wish that within the Honors Program and beyond, BSU becomes a more welcoming place to discuss polarizing issues. In the coming months I hope to post more social justice oriented pieces to facilitate productive dialogue.

Until then,

M.S.

Upcoming Honors Student Congress Event: Making the Grade in Kenya Raffle and Dinner

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The Honors Student Congress, a community of engaged scholars committed to developing leaders with worldly vision, is proud to be hosting “Making the Grade in Kenya,” a fundraising dinner to benefit a female student, Hannah, at the Beverly School of Kenya. The goal of this dinner is to raise a $2,000 scholarship that will cover Hannah’s room and board and other educational costs for a year.

The dinner will take place on Tuesday, February 24th, in the RCC Large Ballroom. Starting at 6:00 PM a silent auction will take place. All sales of these auction items will go towards the $2,000 fundraising goal. Many great items will be auctioned off including Maroon 5 concert tickets, Red Sox tickets, Hy-line tickets, and more! There will also be a 50/50 raffle taking place!

Immediately following the silent auction, dinner will be served along with a presentation from representatives of the Beverly School of Kenya to provide information about the school and share Hannah’s story.

Don’t miss this chance to help provide Hannah with an education! We hope to see you all there on Tuesday, February 24th in the RCC Large Ballroom beginning at 6:00 PM.

Please RSVP to Amy Couto at amy.couto@bridgew.edu or (508) 531-1378 by February 13th.

-K. A.