Neurodiverse students often struggle to get co-ops, internships, and their first job because they face significant social barriers during the process of securing such opportunities. In this episode, Kendra Evans joins us to discuss a program at the Rochester Institute of Technology that helps this population of students build the skills needed to navigate the hidden rules of interviewing and supports them through their internship experiences.
Kendra is the Coordinator of the Neurodiverse Hiring Initiative (or NHI) at the Rochester Institute of Technology [RIT]. NHI facilitates myriad programs that build the confidence and job readiness skills of autistic job seekers, provides guidance and support to employers, and creates unique opportunities connecting hiring managers with RIT’s highly-skilled neurodiverse applicant pool. Kendra is pursuing her MBA to better make the business case for neurodiverse affirming workplaces.
- Neurodiverse Hiring Initiative at RIT
- Lindamood-Bell Training
- Laurie Ackles
- National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), What is Career Readiness?
- Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2022). Inclusive teaching: Strategies for promoting equity in the college classroom. West Virginia University Press.
- Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA)
John: Neurodiverse students often struggle to get co-ops, internships, and their first job because they face significant social barriers during the process of securing such opportunities. In this episode, we discuss a program that helps this population of students build the skills needed to navigate the hidden rules of interviewing and supports them through their internship experiences.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…
Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.
John: Our guest today is Kendra Evans. Kendra is the Coordinator of the Neurodiverse Hiring Initiative (or NHI) at the Rochester Institute of Technology [RIT]. NHI facilitates myriad programs that build the confidence and job readiness skills of autistic job seekers, provides guidance and support to employers, and creates unique opportunities connecting hiring managers with RIT’s highly-skilled neurodiverse applicant pool. Kendra is pursuing her MBA to better make the business case for neurodiverse affirming workplaces. Outside of RIT, Kendra is a community organizer and serves on various boards. She has three teenage children and a springer doodle puppy, loves her Peloton and logic puzzles, and her last meal would be a soft pretzel and an IPA at a ballpark, preferably Wrigley Field. Welcome Kendra.
Kendra: Thank you for having me.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are: … Kendra, are you drinking some tea?
Kendra: I am drinking some tea. I was going to Ted Lasso you and saying I’m really more of a coffee gal. But for the occasion, I’m having a little Earl Grey here in the afternoon.
John: Many of our guests do drink coffee or Diet Coke or water.
Rebecca: I did have a silent share. I don’t know if you saw but I was cheering for the tea. I’m so excited that you had tea. [LAUGHTER]
John: And I have Prince of Wales tea today.
Rebecca: And John and I are on the same page because… this is very unusual… but I have the same tea as John.
John: I think that’s the first time in over 280 podcasts.
Rebecca: We chose them independently, and then realized we had chosen the same.
John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss the Neurodiverse Hiring initiative at RIT. First, though, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your path to becoming a coordinator of this program?
Kendra: Sure. I actually started my career as an elementary school teacher and started off very early, realizing that my training, my master’s degree in education, didn’t actually prepare me for the students in my classroom. And so I went on to get a number of different certifications for the teaching of reading to dyslexic students, for a Lindamood-Bell training for processing disorders. And the more I broadened my skill set for working with learning differences, the more and more I kept coming in contact, and was being referred to work with students on the autism spectrum, mostly because of my passion for executive functioning, and how to basically improve those skills in everyone. And so I started as an elementary school teacher, I did that for a few years, became a learning specialist. Then when we relocated to Rochester, I opened my own small business. And while I was working in my brick and mortar social learning environment, RIT found me, my supervisor, Laurie Ackles, and the rest is history. So that’s where I came from. And then of course, I can tell you about the program itself. But that’s my trajectory was basically I’ve taught students pre-K now through higher ed.
Rebecca: You’ve hinted a little bit at your passion towards this work. Can you tell us a little bit about the origin of the initiative?
Kendra: Sure, well RIT started helping students transition from high school to college back in 2008. And one of the reasons that many students choose the Rochester Institute of Technology is because of the career and cooperative placement, we have a very robust, it’s like an apprenticeship program. In order to get your degree and most of our majors, it’s required that you have onsite experiential learning. And after my team had really moved forward in helping students with their social and their self advocacy and executive functioning, and all of the things needed to succeed for the academics in college, we realized that many of our students, even though they had come to RIT for this job experience, were unable to get their foot in the door. And therefore, when you can’t get your co-op that’s required, even though you’ve successfully completed all of the other content area requirements, they weren’t graduating. So this became the next barrier to employment and purpose and belonging in that meaningful adult life that we’re hoping all of our students succeed at. And so, thankfully, we have a gift funded initiative, thanks to the many parents that are very supportive of the work that we’ve done over the years. And so in 2018, we received this gift and pretty much were given carte blanche in order to do the work as we saw what our students needed and what employers were looking for. And in 2018, we started getting our students those first co-ops by partnering with employers and working on job training, and it’s gone from there.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of the barriers that you indicated that the students were having or facing trying to get their foot in the door for those co-op experiences?
Kendra: Sure. Well, interviewing is still a dominantly social process, right? We have to pick up on cues. We have to modulate our voice, we have to code switch, we have to dress appropriately. There’s all kinds of unspoken rules that our students are not prepared for. Even though they have the same hard skill set from RIT that their peers have, the social barriers were just really great. And so that’s one of the main difficulties with our students. Also, job descriptions can be a barrier for my students as well, because if employers are not distinguishing between “must-have” skills and “nice-to-have” skills, my students will often not apply to something if their exact major isn’t listed, if they’re like, “Oh, I’ve only had one course in C++, I haven’t had two, maybe that’s not enough.” Those were things that were keeping my students from even applying. There’s also things on the employer side that in addition to the way we’re looking to interview, when we’re looking for a best fit, that concept of best fit in the social aspect of the interviewer can inadvertently exclude this highly skilled talent pool simply because they don’t necessarily give you a warm and fuzzy, let’s say, or they don’t answer a question in an expected way. And so I often make the business case for: “Are you looking for expected? Aren’t you looking to get a job done and bring innovation, let’s talk about what is unique about my students, what they’re bringing that you already want, and what’s going to be different, that’s going to set your company apart.” And so those are some of the barriers in how I work with employers and with students to make that match and just make sure that we’re all speaking the same language,
John: what are some of the skills that the students you’re working with have that would be useful that are not generally recognized in an interview,
Kendra: There are so many. My students are passionate intellectual problem solvers. And I’m not saying that the rest of the RIT students aren’t. But that is definitely something that I will put forward. These are individuals who strive to do their best, they look at problems differently, and they’re going to stick with it. There’s a problem to solve, they’re going to follow it from beginning to end. I often say, and this is very general, but I’m neurotypical, I’m an extrovert, I’m going to spend time at work doing things not always just my work. Whereas I will tell you that my students can hyper focus on that task at hand, and they’re going to work very efficiently to get it done. So there’s just a multitude of things I could talk about, but their problem-solving skills, their stick-to-itiveness. And just their different way of approaching a problem. We don’t all want to be the same. It inhibits the creative process. And if you want to be innovative, we all know that you have to have creativity and a bunch of minds coming together.
Rebecca:So it sounds to me, based on what you’re describing is that you’re helping facilitate matching students to opportunities. Is that the role that the initiative is taking? How are the students getting the placements?
Kendra: So my role, when I describe it, it’s really three main goals. The first is to work with our students, to talk about those unspoken rules, to make them more job ready. The National Association of Colleges and Employers have identified 16 skills. So I work to let them know, “Hey, you’re actually being judged on these things. Let’s talk about them. Let’s practice and let’s teach you how to talk about your experience,” because oftentimes, they don’t realize that they have that. So I work with the job seeker. I work with the employer to implement universal design, so they’re not excluding anyone. And so actually, universal design helps all employees, not just autistic employees. And then yes, I’m the matchmaker, the bridge, the pipeline between the students and the employer. And we come up with creative ways to do that, including reverse job fairs, we partner with our career services office, we have information sessions that are low sensory and low stress, that’s a lot of what we do, is just to make sure that this is an environment that models best practice and how my student is going to be the best performer for your company. So those are the three main aspects of NHI.
John: You mentioned reverse job fairs. Could you explain what that is for people who have not heard of those before?
Kendra: So at RIT, we call it an affinity reception. And if you can picture a job fair, think back to our first jobs where you go into this large auditorium, you have 250 employers, and all the job seekers are dressed in their blazers like I happen to be today. And they go up to their 30 seconds of fame where they’ve got to give an elevator pitch, they got to wait in line, your recruiters are tired and cranky, and the sound is cacophony. It’s a lot. What we do is we bring our students and they sit at the table, we have fewer employers that are coming around which the students get to know who they are ahead of time. We prep for all of that. But then the employers circulate around the tables to our students as opposed to the reverse. And I’m also there as a facilitator to reach out to the employer: “Who are you? What is your name?” It makes the introduction. So I am frequently the matchmaker in all of these situations. And it really lowers the sensory overload, it reduces the stress factor, especially if you know who you’re going to see, you can prep for it. And you also don’t have to navigate, moving around, bumping into people, the crowds, the noise and we, even in that space, have a breakout room as well, so that students can take a break from the table, go refresh, have some water, regulate ourselves, and then come back out and do it again. So that’s kind of the theory as opposed to students coming to you, you’re coming to the job seeker.
Rebecca: We often talk about universal design for learning in a classroom setting but you were also talking about universal design in this interview setting. Can you talk a little bit about what that looks like?
Kendra: Absolutely. Just like we would translate an accommodation plan from college to career, the concept of universal design is universal, really. And so in this particular case, things that are very helpful for my autistic jobseekers, which I’ll be honest, very helpful for me, things like, “Could I please have the questions in advance so that I can prepare my best answer?” I’m not going to be surprised and therefore anxious and shut down when we’re going to have our conversation. Things like being able to disclose if I need to have a fidget under the table, and why I’m doing that, being able to talk about the lighting in the room, or like, “Where am I going to go? What can I expect? Who’s going to be there? How long is the day going to be?” …just various things like that. Those are some very small modifications to the process that universally help any job applicant feel comfortable, and therefore bring their most authentic and best self to the interview.
Rebecca: Sounds a lot better to me.
Kendra: Indeed. Ideally, we want an interview to be where we’re learning about each other, we’re learning about the job to be done, and we’re both assessing if we think this is going to be something that we want to engage in together. And the balance of power is always off in those interviews anyway, and especially for the first job out of college, or even co-ops, or before that, right? I’ve only been in college for a year and a half. And my students are already interviewing, right? They’re 20 years old, they’ve never had a job before. And now they’re going into this big data analyst co-op position. That’s a lot of stress for anyone. So anything we can do to minimize the stress and maximize the ability to share the skills that I have. And that’s another thing that companies are doing as well, is changing the interview process, so that instead of all of the questions, it’s “Alright, we’re going to bring you to campus, we’re going to give you a problem, we’re going to have you work on it with some of our other applicants in a team. And we’re going to see how you solve a problem, as opposed to how you talk about how you solve a problem.” So it really is much more skills based. Another thing that if you’re going to have not only getting the questions in advance, but breaking those questions down and making them single step, so that I don’t get lost in some huge, rambling answer is very helpful and making sure that they are less open ended and more, “What is the skill I’m trying to assess with these questions?” That’s another Universal Design tactic that helps a lot. And then one last thing that I’m seeing more and more companies use is, are platforms like HireVue, where they can record their answers. The virtual world, this way nobody has to fly to the new Microsoft campus anymore, we can do it from the comfort of our home offices and have as many recordings as we want. Again, all of us misspeak sometimes, it’s nice to have that do-over because I really am trying to showcase what I can bring to your company and my students bring a lot.
John: So it sounds as if employers are starting to recognize this and learn new skills. What role do you play in helping them learn alternative ways of interviewing?
Kendra: It really depends on the company. And we work with big anchor companies. I’ve talked about Microsoft, I’ve taught SAS, Southwest Airlines, they’re now big players in the field that are realizing that diversity, equity, and inclusion isn’t diverse enough if it doesn’t include neurodiversity. So there are some big dogs in the field that are bringing their HR programs, and they’re really working to make sure that they’re doing best practice. Companies like that will often come to me and say, “Hey, we’re doing this, who do you have for me in these fields?” And I am, in that case, mostly just a matchmaker, I help shepherd my jobseekers through the program. I check in with the recruiter: “How’s it going? Where are they in the process? Do you have any questions?” And I’m a matchmaker to make sure that that pipeline is direct, and they’re getting who they need. There are other companies, and these could be startups, these could be other big companies, but they come saying, “Hi, I’m an HR manager, I’m a data analyst, I’m someone right,” it could be anywhere in the company, that they have someone in their family in their network who’s autistic. And they realize, hey, this is something that would benefit my workplace. This is something that would benefit my person, what can we do? And so if you’re at the very beginning phase, I do a lot of nurturing with those companies talking about where can you get more information? Who are the models that you can look at. I’m here for a consult, do you want to interview some of my students, because a lot of what I do at that stage too, is destigmatizing. Autism, it is a spectrum, and so some people come in thinking that, “Oh, I’m going to do some charity work.” And that’s not at all what we’re doing. In fact, at this point, I’m doing you a favor. This is a talent pool in worker shortage. Trust me, companies really get it at this point in time.
Rebecca: You’ve match made, they’ve joined an organization for their co-op for their experience, how have you worked with companies to help that onboarding process and to make sure that they have a good experience once they’ve gotten the experience?
Kendra: One of the wonderful platforms that we partner with is an organization called Uptimize, and they do online trainings for employees, employers, and they have online training modules. I always give the disclaimer, we don’t know each other well, but I’m a highly critical person, and I hate to waste people’s time. So I don’t often send out professional development if I don’t truly believe in it. And I’ll tell you that I did these modules that were shared with us by Uptimize, and I learned things. And so one of the things that we have with them, because they have a whole suite of trainings, but we have Neurodiversity 101, and a basic module for hiring managers, for HR professionals, as well as supervisors. And so when a company is ready to take our students, I can give them unlimited licenses to share with the team, to share with the executives to share with everyone to try to build awareness, because the truth is, with the increase in diagnosis of autism, we’re all working in neurodiverse teams already, we just don’t always know it. So again, universal design is helping who you already have, and also opening up this talent pool that you’re not accessing currently. So there’s widespread benefits, and I’m giving it to you for free. If you want more, you can then go partner with Uptimize, and they’ll do all kinds of accessory training. But here’s a great introduction that we can give to our hiring managers. I often talk to them ahead of time before they take one of my students. The two main barriers once I have the job with you, would be housing, and transportation, learning how to navigate a new city, being comfortable navigating it, figuring out where you’re going to live for these 10 weeks. I remember doing that as a neurotypical, A-Type 20 year old. And so that’s hard for anyone, it’s exceptionally hard for my students. So that needs to be considered. companies aren’t really providing housing or transportation now, but if you’re going to boast about your neurodiversity hiring initiative, you at least need to have answers for me on how you’re going to direct them to these housing sites, here’s what we’re going to do, how is that going to work. And then I also just help make sure that my students are following through on all the onboarding paperwork and things from my end. And then if you’re an employer that we have a partnership with, I’m available to you. I’ll tell you that most of them don’t reach out to me during the co-ops, but I’m here. So if we need to troubleshoot, if something’s going better or worse than you expected, let me know, let’s take it to the next level. It’s about being the best supervisor you can, regardless, and I’m just an extra tool when you work with my students.
John: It’s wonderful that you have this program at RIT. But is this very common in the rest of academia?
Kendra: Well, there are about 75 to 80 programs across the country that are working in various ways at various levels, some are brand new, some have been around almost as long as we have, in order to help support students through this academic process of college. The goal of college is education, of course, and meaningful employment would be my objective at the end of college. So not all of them are handling it in the same way or have the same programming that we do. But that’s in total, there’s about 75 to 80 across the country at this moment in time, that support through the transition from high school to college. And just as I said, we started with that as well. And now we are helping transition into the workplace.
Rebecca: You mentioned early on about feeling not prepared to support the students you had when you were an elementary school teacher. And I have heard this many times, a faculty member at a college or university saying the same thing, maybe not prepared to teach [LAUGHTER] and then also not too prepared to support this particular group of students or many sets of students that are very different from one another. Can you talk a little bit about strategies that faculty might want to be aware of that could help support students like yours more effectively?
Kendra: Oh, absolutely. The more partnerships we can have with our professors and across campus, that’s one of the things when we talk about where this program is going, that’s something that is critically important, both to the academic success, and then, of course, into the workplace. So my students do very well with written communication, typically, and since most of us are using some kind of my Mycourses or online shell for information, please go ahead and upload those PowerPoint slides, please go ahead and put your notes online. Those are not crutches, if you will, those are actual accommodations that are just best practice. I let you all know that I’ve already got a master’s degree. I’m working on my business degree now. And I’m a graduate student in business. And I get that, as a neurotypical, like that’s just best practice so that I can go further than these notes. Doing those kinds of things, super important. Setting up a culture in your classroom where you can take a break if you need to, and just saying that out loud, so that it’s kind of a culture of the classroom, being aware of what could be overstimulating in your environment. In our lecture halls, it’s not as if we have a whole lot of control, but if you’re in a smaller setting, to just go ahead and look at those things. And sometimes some of us talk more than others. I talk a whole lot, we can have a neurotypical person that’s going to suck up the air in the room. That’s something that we’re used to. Giving students strategies ahead of time or if you notice that, pulling them aside, because they want to be their best selves. I’m constantly raising my hand because I love your topic. I’m very excited to please and I want to engage and if you say something, “I notice how excited you are Kendra, if you could pick just two times that you’re going to share out loud during class, and then write down everything else and email it to me, you can give it to me after class.” It’s just basic classroom management kinds of things. And it’s training our students not just to be good students, but to be good citizens, and to be good employees. And it’s how do we do that give and take that maybe some of us take for granted that we learned turn taking, and we were really good at it, and sometimes people need to be encouraged to take more turns, that would be the other end of the spectrum is that when I’m teaching my career ready bootcamp, the reason that I’m here, I usually have those two different groups. And that’s true among neurotypical people as well. So if I’m going to suck up the air, give me some strategies, so that I’m not alienating my classmates and I’m still engaging. And if I’m too afraid to talk, tell me how you want to hear from me, I can email you before class. Give strategies that show that you want them there and that teach them how to be part of the mix, regardless of whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, or a neurotypical or neurodivergent. Those are some of the really best practices that I can say: share all of that written material, [LAUGHTER] and make sure that you’ve created a culture that just meets people where they are. And like I said, this is universal design. It doesn’t matter if you’re autistic or not. These are just best practices that help everyone. This is something I’m passionate about, and it traces back to my earliest days as a first-grade teacher. As I told you, I went through Orton-Gillingham training to teach dyslexic students because I came out with a master’s degree, and then had no idea how to teach reading. I had no idea what I was doing. That’s whole language, it’s all the stuff. And when I would come back from this very intense training that is specifically for dyslexic students, and I wanted to teach it in my private, high-end, elementary school, I had to justify why I was doing that. Well, why does my student need this particular program, and I was able to say, “Orton-Gillingham breaks language down into pieces. And if I teach this way, it’s the way that this particular subgroup requires in order to learn how to read, we’re keeping reading from them, if I don’t teach it in this one way, but for everybody else that gets it broken down, this is helping them with all of that language that you’re going to hit later on… the words that are not first-grade words, they’re going to be able to decode it, because that’s how their brain works, and I’m just giving them new pieces of the puzzle.” And so when I talk about how I’m teaching reading to first graders, or how I’m teaching job readiness to 22 year olds, it’s the same idea. It’s just: how do we help everyone? …and tailoring our design to be more inclusive, it’s just what we should all be doing.
John: Right now we’re running a reading group that focuses on Inclusive Teaching by Viji Sathy. And Kelly Hogan, and much of what you’re describing seems like the type of structure that they encourage people to use, and small group discussions and providing ways for all students to be comfortable. And we’re seeing that a lot, that there’s so many things converging in terms of things that are effective in helping people learn show up in many different approaches in terms of studies of how we learn, studies of effective teaching methods, studies of creating an inclusive environment. And pretty much all these methods benefit all students, but they particularly benefit those students who don’t do as well without the support provided. And it sounds like this is another form of inclusive teaching.
Kendra: It is. I couldn’t agree with you more. Regardless of the age, we all need to feel safe in the environment. And I’m not going to feel safe if someone’s interrupting me or talking over me. I’m not going to feel safe if I don’t feel like the teacher wants to hear what I have to say. I’m not going to feel safe. If I don’t understand the information or I have sensory overload. It doesn’t matter, we all need to feel safe first. Second, the next buzz would be belonging in higher education, and how am I connecting to my peers and connecting one on one to either my teacher or my professor? How is that working? And then you have the content that comes after all of that. So we really do have to work on our classroom management, we really do have to work on that personal relationship with our students. And then it’s the same in the workplace, we need a safe workplace where I don’t have to mask but I can be my authentic self and therefore I can bring my whole brain capacity to the job, I’m not worried about if somebody’s going to notice something about me or I’m going to feel uncomfortable or they’re going to feel uncomfortable. It translates across the lifespan of a learner.
Rebecca: And most of these things are not difficult.
Kendra: You’d asked about my relationship with either professors or with employers. And I’ll go back to the employer piece because the concept of ADA and IDEA can be scary and intimidating to human resource managers. And so when I talk about what is a reasonable accommodation for my students, most of the time, it’s me asking for a supervisor to just be a very direct and explicit supervisor. It’s things like: can they wear their noise-cancelling headphones while they’re working to kind of drown out some of this din? Are they able to work at home? Are there hybrid options that are available? Is it okay if they take their shoes off under the desk? These aren’t even things that cost the employer any money. These are just sensory regulatory issues, and then it goes into things like: Can you please set a regular weekly meeting with your employee so that my student knows when to come to you. And it goes back to that Which type of person am I? Do I ask way too many questions all the time? Or do I never ask a question and then it’s a barrier for me accomplishing the task. So if I know that I’m going to meet with Kendra every Monday, and I have to bring my list of questions that helps both sets. It also, as the employer, gives me the ability to check in on where you are and advance, because that’s the goal. Even if you’re not considered a teacher or professor anymore, that’s what a supervisor is. Our goal is to elevate our employees and help them reach the next level, at least, that’s my definition of what a supervisor does. So. I like to share that, yeah, and these things are not big cost. They’re big returns on your bottom line, is what it is. So if I can be myself at work, I’m going to work while I’m there. And that’s really what it is.
Rebecca: You talked a lot about at the beginning that the Institute started with the transition from high school to college. Can you talk about some of the things that are important to support neurodiverse students in that transition?
Kendra: Oh, definitely. So there are five pillars to the program. And the one that we’ve talked about would be career and co-op. So we’ll go ahead and move that to the side. Social is a really big piece, that sense of belonging, self advocacy, how do I ask my professor? What are the deadlines? Can I leave the room? Self advocacy and all of those areas. Wellness and health is a really big deal. And the fifth one is executive functioning, where I’ve done all of my studying. That’s what we do, is a lot of executive functioning. So those are the five pillars of the program to help them transition. And we do a lot of work. Also, just like we onboard for a job, we do special onboarding for our students as they come in and their parents. And I think that’s a really important shout out is that oftentimes the support system for all of us gets overlooked… it’s our partners in life, it’s our children, it’s our parents, it’s all of those people. And for students on the spectrum, these are parents that have had to be varsity parents for a really long time to navigate the 504s and the IEPs and all of the social learning that has to happen in K through 12. And so onboarding the parents that this is a young adult, they’ve gotten into RIT, you did this. They’re here, they got this, and we’ve got them. So to do that transition on: “here’s what to expect.” And it’s all the same things. It’s like, “Where are you going to go? Who’s your point person? How are you going to do this when a problem arises… because it’s going to… where do you go?” …and I don’t say that, because you’re autistic, I say that because I can look at both of you and say, something’s going to happen that we have to navigate. And we have to stay emotionally regulated, and we have to problem solve, and we need to know who to ask for help. These are life skills for any person. Again, it’s back to universal design. But that’s part of what SSP, our spectrum support program does, specifically for our parents and students, is a lot of that onboarding and letting them know that we’re here and you earned this, you did this, you’re going to be okay, you’re going to survive, you’re going to thrive, this is going to be great for you.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit more about the executive function part of the program?
Kendra: Well, I always like to talk about executive functioning. So the first thing I’m going to do is tell you my favorite executive functioning 101. I want you to picture a stop sign, S T O P, and when we’re talking about executive functioning, we’re talking about space, time, objects, and people. So if I need to function in any environment, I need to stop and think about those things. Think about an elevator, what’s the space like? How long am I going to be there? Am I supposed to talk to the person? You go through space, time objects, people, and when you transition into college, it’s a big difference, because in K through 12, a lot of that’s managed for you. And then you get sent off to college. Oh my gosh, the schedule changes, the classrooms are different. I have to get from my room to all of this. And I have to factor in travel time. How long do these long papers take? How do I chunk those assignments? So everything we do is space, time, objects, people, and I’ve been using that since I was a first-grade teacher and all the way up because you can chew on that, everybody can understand this is what I’m thinking about in this environment. And so we do a lot of visual scheduling so that you can see your “must dues.” Where are your blocks? How do you plug in the things that you need to accomplish? We do planning on here are all the assignments that are coming up. How long do you think this will take? Time management is often a hiccup for my students. Again, think about the people in your lives. Some of us are really good at some pieces of executive functioning, and some of us are not. I can tell the time down to the second most places, people think I’m a savant, but I can’t organize to save my life. I have 22 tabs open right now on my computer. I struggle with that, and I’m neurotypical and high achieving and mid career and all of those things that you’re supposed to check the boxes off. So when we’re helping our students transition from high school to college, how do you navigate those four things? And some of them you’re going to be stronger at than others. Everybody is. So what are the tools so that you can be independent and accomplish your goals here? And that’s a lot of what we do. And of course, as I told you, there are those five pillars, so when it comes to career and co-op, I have a whole other set of how we’re talking about space, time objects, people. We also talk a lot, as I said, about social and about well being. I remember being horribly homesick. I didn’t like my roommate. There’s all of those things that all of us have to navigate. And so when you don’t like your roommate, because you didn’t get that single, what do you do? How do you navigate this? When you’re lonely, what does that feel like? What are the alternatives? And then of course, if something does happen, we always plug the students into those campus resources. So how are you doing? What do you think? Let’s walk down to counseling. Let’s just walk down together right now. They know they can advocate for themselves, but they also have somebody that’s going to walk on this journey with them, and that’s really important. And it brings, I think, peace of mind, both to the student and, of course, to their families that they’re sending out of the nest for the first time.
Rebecca: I think the things that you’re talking about in terms of executive function should be an all first-year classes, [LAUGHTER] it should be built into the curriculum.
Kendra: I think every professor would thank me, if it was, [LAUGHTER] and I say that about my career ready bootcamp. I would have been so much better off, if I’d have this kind of training going into my first job. It’s universal design. If we were doing this kind of prep for everyone, I think every employer would be happier. But my students specifically need the explicit instruction on “This is what they’re looking for. When you do this behavior, this is how they feel, and this is the outcome when that happens.” You need those behavior maps in order to teach the lesson that is not coming in through osmosis. And to be fair, one of the reasons there’s such an employment divide is, autistic students and adults, they’re not getting jobs, they don’t have any work experience at all. So if you’ve never been in a work environment, how are you supposed to know how to behave in one. I remember, again, as a learning specialist in elementary school, we would go over social situations like a birthday party, any birthday party, I don’t care who it is or what age, there are certain components that you can expect so you can stay self regulated. You can know how much time it’s going to take, you’re going to know you have to bring a gift of some sort, again, space, time, objects, people and here are the classic things. It translates into adulthood and the workplace. Like you need to know how do you code switch? What does that even mean in this new environment? And you can show how you’ve mastered it through your lifespan and here’s just the next frontier. We spend a lot of time doing this, and I will just say, in terms of our program, I’m excited that we have this funding, I’m excited to be able to do this at RIT and for that kind of buy in. In this last year, we used to offer career ready bootcamp, just once per year. I was able, being full time and with the buy in now, we offer it three times, which means if the average incoming population that works with SSP is about 30 students and I was able to get 24 students through the career ready boot camp in this first year. So that’s something that they’re all going to get to take. And so now that we’ve got this model that’s working really well and is self sustainable and that we hope we can take to other colleges to do this. We’re working on different ways to support the student across their learning journey at RIT. And so we’re doing some alternative, like a spring break trip, I’m actually taking a cohort of eight students to New York City in March so that we can go visit four different employer sites. And we’re gonna go over beforehand the T chart of what do you see? And what do you hear? And in these specific categories. Is it an open space, is everybody in a cubicle? Are they talking to one another? Or are they working by themselves in headphones? What is the culture that you observe? How are people talking with a list of, like, what are you looking for? Be a social detective, so that we can then come back and debrief and I’m intentionally going to very different environments, so that they probably haven’t been in a work environment before. And we’re going to some really big ones, and to be able to say for themselves, “Oh, I can do this.” I know what to expect. And not only can I do this, I know what I prefer, and I know why I prefer it. So again, it helps that self advocacy, it helps to be your authentic self. And these are employers that all have neurodiverse programs and want my students. And I have to tell you that that is the most rewarding part of teaching career ready boot camp is when I have SAS come to talk or Southwest Airlines and I get to set the stage with students of “You are wanted. I know you’ve spent your lives feeling other. No, no, they’re here early for you. It is August, they have not posted these jobs yet. They are here to get a front-row seat to my RIT talent.” And you can just see them, they just sit up so much straighter. And in all of the post career ready boot camp survey, that’s what they say… it was just I never thought that people were going to want me… never thought… or it felt so good to have someone come here. And they do, I mean these employers give a 45-minute presentation of how we are thinking about you and your needs and here’s how it’s really great. Oh, and here’s somebody that did it. Like Southwest Airlines started their program last summer and had one of my RIT students and brought her back to career ready boot camp… and to hear her share her experience and what it was like and the students were able to ask like, “What’s your one piece of advice? What do you think you did the best in the interview? What do you think you did the worst?” And this is my best piece of advice that I really want everybody to hear going into this interview. They want to know how you solve a problem. Just like in life. I just want to know that you’re listening to me and that you’re going to try,. I want to know your initiative and your problem solving and so the student comes back. And she says, “I got this question and I didn’t know the answer, and I started to panic. What I did is I took a deep breath and I looked down at my notepad, because we always say, have reasons, have ways to distract yourself. I looked down, and I composed myself, and I looked back up, and I said, ‘I honestly don’t know. But I’ve solved other problems. Here’s how I would approach that.’” And she went into what she would do next. She’s like, “I think that’s what got me the job.” Because again, it’s how do I solve some them? Am I going to give up? Am I going to whine? Am I going to complain? Or am I just going to get to work, because again, these are co-op positions. And then I talk about what a co-op is: “Think of it as a class. This is like the lab to your bio class. This is you getting out and putting those skills to work.”
Rebecca: This sounds like a really great program. We always wrap up our sessions by asking: “What’s next?”
Kendra: I love “what’s next?” I don’t know if you’re West Wing fans, but “what’s next?” is what’s asked by the President every time he’s ready to push the agenda forward. And so that is actually how I kind of live my life is “What’s next?” As I told you, we’ve expanded career ready bootcamp, we’re now doing alternative spring travel. And we’ll do winter term travel with our students to give these opportunities. What I’m most excited about, we’re always looking to increase the impact on our students, we’re always looking to increase the reach to the community, and how do we train the trainer. So that’s a big goal is to be able to take this career ready bootcamp to other universities and show them how they can make it their own and help their students. I’m also working with a lot of partnerships on campus, because that’s where creativity happens, because we were talking, it’s all cross disciplinary. And so we have a program called RIT certified that works with online options. And so this will reach not only within RIT, but wider. And so we’re going to have modules for managers. So if you’re taking an HR class, if you’re taking this managerial certificate, you’re going to get best practices and universal design, so that we can do the reach further. I’m also going to work with our business school to be able to have internship programs, leadership certificates, things like that. So that it’s not just helping the autistic student or the already employed, but we’re planting the seeds so that as each of these people go out into their various networks, it’s a wider spread awareness and knowledge. And so I think those are the main ways that we’re looking to take care of impact is cross collaboration and expanding the model.
John: You’re doing some wonderful work. And I hope we’ll see more campuses and more programs like this, because individuals who are autistic often have trouble finding those first jobs where they’re successful. And we’re wasting a lot of resources that can bring some real strengths to organizations and to businesses out there.
Kendra: That’s true. But as I said before, these are business solutions. This is an untapped talent pool that really the sky’s the limit here. In all spaces, we need to make a bigger table. We need to make room for everyone and make sure we all have a place. So that’s what we’re doing.
Rebecca: Well, I know that we’ll look forward to getting some updates maybe from you in the future about this program and the next things that you have planned.
Kendra: I would love that and maybe you can recommend some tea alternatives for me. [LAUGHTER]
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.