Posted 8 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023
Managing a disability with no support inspires help for future college students
Nicole Novak wasn’t diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) until she was 30. But, looking back, she now sees how the symptoms were present early on.
“I was a good student and very quiet. But in eighth grade, I was getting frustrated and stopped doing my homework for no apparent reason. Then in high school, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression,” says Novak. “It wasn’t until I was 29 and having trouble focusing at work when my doctor asked, ‘Have you ever been tested for ADHD?’”
Novak isn’t alone in her struggle with identifying and getting support for ADHD. Many women are diagnosed later in life than men because of the way they present the signs in less visible ways. And, for a long time, ADHD has been viewed as a childhood disorder, so proper interventions have not always been provided to young people as they transition into adulthood, notes Novak.
Novak, a UW-La Crosse academic advisor and recent graduate of the Student Affairs Administration graduate program, researched ADHD among college undergraduates as part of her graduate capstone project. She discovered issues that get in the way of students officially declaring their ADHD to college disability service offices, which is key to getting support and accommodations on campus. Those issues include the stigma of having a cognitive condition, the financial cost of obtaining a medical diagnosis, and the self-awareness to assess if you have it to begin with, she says.
At UW-La Crosse, 353 students — or about 3% of students — officially reported having ADHD during the 2022-23 school year, a number that falls within percentages on college campuses nationwide ranging from 2-8%.
After the COVID-19 pandemic, more college students are reporting ADHD when they arrive on campus. Both UW System and UWL saw an increase in students registering ADHD as a disability from 2020-2021 to 2021-22, explains Novak.
But, even with this increased reporting, the percentage still seems low, notes Novak. And that’s troubling considering how ADHD can impact the college experience.
Research has shown that college students with ADHD symptoms are more likely to struggle academically, emotionally and socially than their non-ADHD peers, explains Novak. Not only that, students with ADHD are less likely to complete college than their non-ADHD peers.
ADHD in college — a tough transition without support
When high school students leave for college, many of their previous support systems disappear. Close family, friends, teachers and doctors are far away, and any special ADHD accommodational plans from high school don’t carryover automatically to college.
College students need to take it upon themselves to visit disability service offices when they arrive on campuses to register their disability and request accommodations. And, once requested, those accommodations are not automatically granted. Disability offices require a number of conditions be met, including obtaining a medical diagnosis to grant access to accommodations. Many students struggle with that critical step, meaning they find their way with no services at all, explains Novak.
Luckily, the issue of providing necessary accommodations for students with ADHD is becoming more visible in recent decades, particularly with the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 that broadened the definition of the term “disability” and the protections offered to individuals with both physical disabilities and “invisible” disabilities like ADHD, notes Novak. Currently over 85% of students registered with the ACCESS Center at UWL have what would be considered an invisible disability, notes ACCESS Center Director Andrew Ives.
“We are finally starting to realize this is a real issue,” says Novak.
While Novak went through her undergraduate college years managing her disability without support or awareness of what it was, she doesn’t want that struggle for any other student. ADHD symptoms can impact the same skills aligned with academic success such as staying focused on reading, maintaining attention in class, completing assignments and tests on time, and meeting many other planning and organizational demands. But experiencing ADHD isn’t just about academics, notes Novak. Feeling different and unable to get support can be emotionally and socially isolating as well. These challenges are particularly difficult during college years when students are trying to create new social connections.
However, those who are able obtain disability accommodations for their ADHD in college will find academic and emotional support, like more time on tests, access to quiet spaces for test taking, and understanding staff who can provide holistic support. For someone with ADHD, accommodations like these could mean the difference between a pass or fail grade — or the difference between staying in school or dropping out.
At UWL, the ACCESS Center provides support to students with documented disabilities.
“The goal of the UWL's ACCESS Center is to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities by providing accommodations, individualized consultation and resource coordination,” says Ives. “We empower students to develop strong self-advocacy while providing needed support to promote success.”
How campuses can better help those with ADHD
Novak’s research focuses on what colleges can do to help students with ADHD, including those who are undiagnosed. College disability offices require students to obtain a medical diagnosis to access accommodations, yet obtaining a medical diagnosis can be unaffordable or inaccessible for many students. Novak proposed these research interventions:
- A free peer support network that requires no medical diagnosis: Offer in-person or online weekly meetings led by a peer facilitator for students who experience ADHD symptoms such as hyperactivity and difficulty focusing; discussions about coping with ADHD symptoms and impairments; faculty, staff, and community guest speakers.
- Canvas course: Online resources including training modules, websites, videos, and an asynchronous peer discussion board.
A new peer support group to launch at UWL
Post graduation, Novak landed a position as a UWL academic advisor and has hit the ground running considering how to partner with UWL’s ACCESS Center and apply her research to UWL.
She aims to start a peer support group in collaboration with the ACCESS Center for students who have struggled with staying focused in class and on studies whether they have an ADHD diagnosis or not. She wants the group to become peer-led so juniors and seniors who have had more time with the transition to college can share information and resources with newer students. She envisions a group that can help one another by sharing experiences and also bring in guest speakers from on and off campus.
Applying life lessons to work
Novak says becoming an advisor has been her dream job since serving as the academic department associate in the UWL Music Department, where she realized how fulfilling it was to work with undergraduate students. They are often away from home for the first time and finding themselves, she says.
“I found myself excited to come to work because of the students,” says Novak. “I enjoyed seeing them and watching them progress as they figured things out … and being a little voice of reason in the background sometimes.”
Novak wants to keep learning and growing in her UWL advisor role. She had some of the best mentors to learn from, she adds. Student Affairs Administration program faculty, especially her advisor Becki Elkins, helped her make it through graduate school while balancing her full-time work commitment with the Music Department.
She told her advisor many times that she needed to drop out as it was all too much. Elkins was that little voice of reason for her. “If there is one person who got me through my grad program, it was her,” says Novak. “She modeled what it means to be a good advisor. And her example helped me confirm this is what I want to do with my life.”
Elkins says UWL is lucky to have Novak on staff.
“Nicole approaches her work always with the student in mind. She is a caring and committed advocate for students and their academic and personal success,” says Elkins. “She possesses a depth of knowledge about UWL and a capacity to relate to students that will undoubtedly make her an outstanding academic advisor.”
UWL graduate education: quality mentoring and community engagement
UWL is known for high-quality teaching and student research. Work with graduate students is done through the lens of teaching first and research productivity second. That is a contrast with the model at R1 institutions, where the progress of the research is sometimes more important than the success of individual students.
"It would be easy for graduate students and faculty to work on classes and research in isolation from the broader community. However, graduate education at UWL could not be further from that model. For example, Student Affairs Administration students are working in campus offices at UWL and across the country, and they develop programming based on the concepts they learn in class. School Psychology students complete more than a year of in-the-school training under the supervision of an experienced school psychologist. The Cybersecurity program engages students who are law enforcement and military veterans, who apply that expertise in their coursework. Community engagement enriches the educational experience of our graduate students, giving them an advantage as they move on in their careers or continue their education." — Meredith Thomsen, dean of Graduate & Extended Learning.
UWL’s College of Arts Social Sciences & Humanities offers several graduate programs
- Student Affairs Administration and Leadership (EdD) (Higher Education Leadership Certificate coming soon)
- Student Affairs Administration – Higher Education (MSED)
- School Psychology (MSED + EdS)
- School Psychology online (MSED + EdS)
- Cybersecurity (MS)