Ashleigh Adams envisions her brain as a series of folders that she has to open and close in order to access information and memories. Sometimes she has to check a lot of folders before she finds what she’s looking for, and that can take a long time.
That’s how she describes her learning disability. Because of it, the CU Denver graduate student never thought she was college material, yet she is now well on her way to a master’s degree as part of the first group of students pursuing a degree in counseling with a concentration in higher education and student affairs (HESA) from the School of Education & Human Development (SEHD). The program trains students to serve culturally diverse and underrepresented students in higher education.
Thriving in the new HESA program
“I’m excited to be part of the first student affairs cohort,” said Adams, who grew up in Golden, Colo., and got her bachelor’s degree at Colorado State University. “I’m taking classes right as they’re first offered. The classes are challenging on a personal, reflective level and also motivating because of how impactful it is to have both diversity and inclusivity on campus.”
Adams is chipping away at the HESA degree while working full time and interning 15–25 hours a week in CU Denver’s Experiential Learning Center.
“Ashleigh is a superstar,” said Carlos P. Hipolito-Delgado, PhD, associate professor in the SEHD Counseling program. “Her research projects focus on issues of diversity and inclusion and are performed to the highest standard.”
But Ashleigh wasn’t always a thriving student.
“My learning disability was diagnosed when I was five years old, and I’ve received special education assistance all through my life,” Adams said. “There has always been a little voice in my head that told me that because I have a learning disability, I’m stupid and don’t have anything to contribute.”
She said her family support got her through high school and into college, but during her undergraduate years, she struggled with the notion that she didn’t belong in higher education. She often felt alone and isolated, different from the other students and unsure of how or where she could get support.
“I didn’t know I could get help from professors and from the amazing offices at the university,” she said. “I was scared to approach them. I thought they weren’t meant for me.”
But when she came to CU Denver and decided to study student affairs, she thought she’d better at least try to practice what she would be preaching and get involved on campus. She started reaching out to professors for help, joined the cross-country team, seized networking opportunities that led to her internship and learned to silence the negative voice in her head.
“Being involved on campus makes a huge difference,” she said. “Being more connected to my school makes me feel more connected to my schoolwork and the meaning behind that work. Everything just clicked for me.”
“I have really seen Ashleigh blossom as a student and future student affairs practitioner,” Hipolito-Delgado said. “She has gone from a student who was reserved and hesitant to participate to an active participant in classes, asking important questions, providing critical insights and pushing her classmates to think more deeply.”
Creating an inclusive campus
Through dealing with her own challenges, Adams recognized that she is passionate about equity in education. She is excited to use her HESA degree to show other students that all those campus offices and programs are meant for them, for everyone.
“The student affairs program is all about making higher education an inclusive environment for all, and that really speaks to me,” she said. “I don’t only want underrepresented students to know they can get an education. Once they get to college, I want them to have opportunities to thrive. That’s my goal, plain and simple.”
She has also recognized that just because her learning disability may give her some weaknesses doesn’t mean she doesn’t have many strengths as well.
“My learning disability is a strength in itself, in that I see the world in a different way,” she said. “I have to do many things in a different way, so I’m constantly problem solving in daily life. That connection in my brain is always flowing, so when something comes up at work, I’m ready to problem solve.”
Fighting for diversity
Adams hopes to finish her HESA degree in December 2017 and is looking forward to starting a career in higher education student affairs. Because she knows that she can get overwhelmed, though, she’s focusing on one thing at a time. For now, she’s loving what she’s learning in the HESA program.
“I’m learning why it’s so important to fight for diversity and inclusion on campuses, because it enriches the learning experience for everyone involved,” she said. “One of my favorite things about CU Denver is how diverse my fellow students and professors are. They’re really what makes the HESA program amazing for me.”
Guest Contributor: Amy Ventura