University of Idaho group helps students find their way, but future funding remains uncertain

MOSCOW – Aidan Neelon’s grades rose from straight C’s to A’s and B’s last semester when the University of Idaho sophomore found the place he belonged on campus.

Neelon, who grew up in Moscow, said he made the academic leap by joining the Raven Scholars, a university transition program for students on the autism spectrum.

Since the program’s inception in 2011, the retention rate among students who participate has been higher than the university’s undergraduate retention average.

“Getting into a career and building a life I can be happy and comfortable with, and being able to successfully manage my life as my own, is a lot more possible,” Neelon said. “It’s nice to find somewhere you belong, because if you find it once, you can find it again.”

Raven Scholars such as Neelon, who expects to graduate in 2020, may indeed have to find that place again.

The privately funded program has an expiration date, with only enough money in its gift budget to operate through the 2018-19 academic year. A request for state funding appears unlikely to be fulfilled.

Neelon spends at least 10 hours per week inside Room 330, on the top floor of the Idaho Commons, where the Raven Scholars Program is housed.

Inside the room, Raven Scholars get assistance from fellow students on navigating campus, breaking down homework, reviewing emails and exploring social interaction.

As those with autism spectrum disorder struggle to communicate and form relationships, Neelon said he gets the majority of his social interaction from the program. He suspects it’s probably the same for this semester’s 17 other Raven Scholars.

Neelon is currently working on group interaction.

“Any people over about three is where I get more awkward and start to stick to the wall,” Neelon said.

For him, and those on the spectrum, conversations don’t come as naturally as they do for others.

“You have to translate,” Neelon said. “What are they trying to say? What’s going on here? Am I doing something wrong? Is there someone coming that’s going to interrupt? There are so many things to think about that it makes it difficult as the conversation keeps growing.”

The dozens of board games stacked on the shelves in the Raven Scholars’ study area encourage social interaction, but funding to keep the door open to Room 330 is running out.

Leslie Gwartney, a former psychosocial rehabilitation specialist and coordinator of the Raven Scholars, said although private donors support the program, the gift budget is running low. Last month, a request Gwartney submitted for about $102,000 to help fund the program into the future was not included in Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s 2019 budget recommendation.

She said she submitted another similar proposal in late January for the following year, but if that one is denied there may not be time for a third try before the lights turn off on the Raven Scholars. The fate of Gwartney’s first request should be known in the coming weeks, when the education budget is finalized.

The program got its name from the Raven Trust, which supplied seed money to kick-start the program in 2011, Gwartney said. She works privately with each Raven Scholar, networking with their professors about potential learning differences and providing information about autism.

Gwartney said she is searching for grants to help keep the program afloat, but due to the uniqueness of the program that funding is hard to come by.

“Students on the autism spectrum are absolutely wonderful people. They have potential that is unimagined, but with support they are able to become more successful, productive members of society,” she said. “I think the need for the program is very clear.”

She is contacted regularly by representatives from other colleges and universities hoping to mimic the program.

About 7 miles away, at Washington State University, a fundraising effort is underway to start a program similar to the Raven Scholars, but it’s unknown if the new program will ever come to fruition.

If funded, the proposed program, Responsibilities Opportunities Advocacy and Respect, or ROAR, would provide two years of an inclusive postsecondary education program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including autism.

Karl Klokke, a 1975 UI graduate who has donated $5,000 to the Raven Scholars program for the past several years, said he gives to the program because he knows what college is like for students on the autism spectrum.

“If the program was around when I was in school, I would have done a lot better,” Klokke said.

He said in college he struggled with social interaction and reading.

“(The program) is a relatively small presence at the university, I’ll be the first to tell you that, but they got something unique and they’re educating autistic kids that probably wouldn’t have succeeded anywhere else,” Klokke said.

The program has proven beneficial for Neelon, who said he might not have dropped out of the high school he attended for two years in Connecticut had a similar program been offered during his time there.

Before the program, Neelon said, he would spend most of his time alone, in hallways outside of classrooms or on the top floor of the library.

“I was just camping out, trying to pass the time,” he said. “(The program) helped me learn how to interact with people in my age group.”

He said before joining the Raven Scholars he had about three friends.

“Everyone in here I could easily count as a friend or an acquaintance,” Neelon said. “Even if we’re siting across the room in silence, just being in the same room is nice.”

The space also provides a place on campus for the students who assist the Raven Scholars.

“It’s just as welcoming of a space for peer mentors as it is for the Raven Scholars,” said Camille Hanson, one of this semester’s five peer mentors. “This is a place where you can be yourself.”

Like Neelon, Hanson, a psychology major, is using the program to prepare for her future, in her case gaining experience for a career assisting people who have developmental disabilities.

She said she’s gained an understanding of people with autism and a formed a bond with some of the students.

“I feel like we’re a team working toward autism awareness,” Hanson said.

Those involved with the program agree there likely are some UI students on the autism spectrum who don’t want to fly with the Raven Scholars.

“I’d imagine some people would be hesitant, just social stigma or fear of a new place,” Neelon said.

Gwartney said she tries to eliminate any stigma by maintaining an open-door policy that lets students come and go on their own terms.

“Raven Scholars is different in that it celebrates neurodiversity,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like an icky label; it feels like something to be excited about and something you can be proud of. ‘Hey, I’m a Raven Scholar.’ ”

Neelon can only hope funding comes through so he can complete his senior year in the program.

“I would probably go back to where I was before, trying to find a quiet corner. My grades wouldn’t be as good as they are,” Neelon said. “It’s hard to understand, but having a place where someone understands how we think can make all the difference.”