Program helps Asperger’s students adjust to campus life


Senior Reporter

Jacob Furchak is a student like any other at Oakland University. He wakes up early in the morning and commutes to school. He is a management information systems major, attends classes throughout the day and takes study breaks in between. He eats his lunch in Vandenberg Hall and plays video games in the computer lab.

But because he has Asperger’s syndrome, meeting people and keeping in contact with them can be difficult for Furchak.

Things like keeping up with assignments and getting involved socially can become overwhelming, especially for Asperger’s students who are new to OU.

OU’s Peer Transition Assistance program helps students like Furchak with things that might be difficult due to having Asperger’s or ADHD. Students in the program are paired with consultants that they meet with regularly for help.

“It helped me get back on track,” Furchak said. “I needed to get in contact with someone because I was spending a lot of time alone.”

Kelley Watson, the program coordinator for the program, said that Asperger’s is a neurological condition that creates difficulties with processing information.  “It impairs the way they can relate to other people,” Watson said.

“With that said, there could be someone with Asperger’s who has superior intelligence, but still has difficulties in social situations.”

Watson said that the program participants meet with their assigned consultants one to two hours a week to touch base, check if they’re doing their assignments, and see that they are involved socially.

“There are many things they can help them with, but each person is so uniquely different,” Watson said.

Furchak has had three consultants over the past year. He said that the first time he met his consultant, they looked up a list of student organizations and clubs. He said his consultant also does things like attend a “meet and greet” lunch with him.

“It was nice to have someone to go with me to those kind of groups because I really wouldn’t invite other people to go with me,” Furchak said.

There are many different levels of functioning within Asperger’s syndrome, and Watson said that what the consultant does with their peer will vary.

“On any particular day we help teach social skills, plan, tutor, model, counsel, organize, network, have meetings … It seems like a lot, but it’s a worthwhile experience every day of the week,” said program consultant Michael Fiorillo.

Watson said that anyone can sign up to be a mentor, but that they look for someone who is social, really wants to help and has a course load that lends themselves to helping.

The program was originally designed for incoming students with Asperger’s or ADHD, to help them become adjusted to life on campus. One of the biggest things, Watson said, is just showing the participants where everything is on campus.

“It’s all about exposure to college life while keeping him as comfortable as possible,” Fiorillo said.  “After he’s comfortable in a particular setting, I’m just a wingman.”

The program has been running since the middle of last year, and some participants said they feel that the program is making a difference in the lives of students with Asperger’s syndrome. Fiorillo said he thinks the program has not only helped students, but helped reduce the dropout rate of Asperger’s students as well.

“Starting college is stressful enough, but then imagine not being able to read emotions and having very little skills in the social realm. You don’t have anyone to sit with at lunch and it seems everything you say comes across as awkward or negative and you don’t know why,” Fiorillo said. He said he believes the program recognizes these shortcomings and provides support.

However, Watson said that the program is not necessarily for all Asperger’s students. She said that some students may be too high-functioning to need a consultant and ideally, some students will no longer need consultants after a transition period.

Rachel Puente, Furchak’s consultant, says she is helping Furchak put together a resume for when he graduates this year. “When I go with him to do this, I can help him put together a stronger resume and make sure he doesn’t back out when he isn’t sure what he needs to do,” she said.

She is also encouraging Furchak to go to job interview training that OU offers.

Furchak said that he is concerned about some of the same things that many outgoing college students are.

“I think what I need at this point is a good job, my own residence … and some exercise.”