Being a student with autism at Delta State brings challenges. And, the first story from our HBCU Student Journalism Network fellows.

The Dispatch
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A newsletter about role of higher education in society — plus Open Campus developments.

A ‘wall to climb with no ladder’

Avery Williams, a 25-year-old with autism, hasn’t had an easy time of it at Delta State University.

He enrolled there two and a half years ago after getting his associate degree from the community college. Delta State held promise for Avery — he hoped to become a cinematographer or video editor, and live independently from his mother, Deloris.

Things haven’t gone as he hoped. He has struggled to communicate with professors. He got suspended over winter break. And he has more than $30,000 in loans hanging over him, writes Molly Minta, our reporter at Mississippi Today. “No matter how hard I work, it’s like there’s always another wall to climb with no ladder, so you gotta find a way around it, through it, over it — without help,” Deloris told Molly about her efforts to help her son.

I asked Molly a few questions about her reporting and how she approached it. Deloris had reached out to Molly after reading her prior coverage. As Deloris was trying to get information about whether Avery could re-enroll, she and Molly talked every day.

Molly’s story highlights broader gaps in student support, too. Only one public university in Mississippi has an in-house program designed for students with autism. And there isn’t a state entity to track graduation rates of college students with disabilities.

“It seems to me that in order for colleges to know if the disability services they provide are actually helping students, perhaps the first thing to understand would be the graduation rates,” Molly says.

— Colleen Murphy

What students have to say

A central belief we hold at Open Campus is that important aspects of stories are missing when reporters aren’t on the ground locally, regularly talking with people about how colleges impact their lives. Two collaborative stories we published this week take advantage of our reporter networks and the connections they have with students all over the country.

In the first, reporters in our Local Network talked with freshmen on campuses in El Paso, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Tampa Bay about adapting to college after spending more than half of high school in a pandemic. The story was co-published by NPR.

“I feel like we were the guinea pig generation,” Adam Raynard, a freshman at the University of South Florida, told Ian Hodgson, our reporter with the Tampa Bay Times.

The students shared experiences of discomfort, isolation, and feeling “like I’m one of the stupidest kids in the room.” But they also talked about discovery, rebuilding, and making up for lost time.

Countering misperceptions

The second collaboration we published this week came from our HBCU Student Journalism Network fellows, who debunked stereotypes of their campuses through conversations with students. Their story was co-published by Capital B.

HBCU students told our fellows that guidance counselors, coaches, and friends had steered them toward predominantly white institutions and made them worry they would miss out on opportunities if they attended an HBCU. Others talked about misperceptions that their campuses were academically inferior and people that dwell too much on what resources are lacking.

Stereotypes matter, one student said, because “they dampen the light that HBCUs all over the country have to offer.

— Sara Hebel

‘Technical Mad Libs’ or valuable tool?

There’s been a lot said in recent weeks about the artificial intelligence tool ChatGPT and the potential threats it poses. Two of our reporters — Emma Folts at PublicSource in Pittsburgh and Daniel Perez at El Paso Matters — found a fresh angle: Some faculty members aren’t shying away. They’re using the tool in class.

“We confront it, and that huge fear goes away. We realize how we can control it,” one Point Park University professor told Emma. “Students don’t want to be robbed of the product. They don’t.”

Danny talked to a University of Texas at El Paso instructor who says it’s better to teach students to properly use ChatGPT, rather than forbid it outright, he said.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

From Florida: Higher ed news continues to come fast and furious out of Florida. This week, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a package of major reforms to the state’s higher education system, including tighter controls on faculty tenure, the establishment of “civics institutes” at three universities, and prohibitions on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs.

“There’s really a debate about what is the purpose of higher education,” the governor said.

And at New College, the governor’s newly appointed trustees began to swiftly usher in change, including by removing the president.

Also from Florida: Fewer than two-thirds of Florida nursing students passed the national licensing exam in 2022, a new report found. Florida has had the lowest exam pass rate in the nation since 2017, according to analysis by our partner, The Tampa Bay Times.

From Cleveland: An effort is underway to connect with the 60,000 Cleveland residents who have completed some college, but don’t have a degree.

From Colorado: More Black and Hispanic Coloradans reported having a degree or other postsecondary credential in 2021, compared to 2019. It’s one sign of progress toward improving college attainment.

From College Inside: Lyle C. May, a prison journalist in North Carolina, writes about how gaining access to education on death row has given him a purpose inside.

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Co-founder and editor-in-chief of Open Campus