Scholarship Recipient Shares Her College Experience
July 31, 2023
OAR interviewed Samantha Harker, a 2020 Schwallie Family Scholarship recipient and member of OAR’s Scholars’ Society, to ask her how she made the transition from high school to college and what advice she has for autistic students pursuing postsecondary education.
The Scholars’ Society offers long-term engagement and support for students who have received awards through the Schwallie Family Scholarship, Lisa Higgins Hussman Scholarship, Synchrony Scholarship for Autistic Students of Color, and Synchrony Tech Scholarship. Since 2007, OAR has awarded $1,552,500 to 503 autistic students through those scholarship programs.
Harker started community college at age 14 and graduated from Arizona State University and University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy when she was 18 with bachelor’s degrees in English and medical humanities.
Currently, she is working as a neurodivergent researcher dedicated to researching autism and advocating for individuals on the neurodiverse spectrum. She aims to improve the understanding of autistic female adults by amplifying participatory research and increasing the number of female participants in research samples. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in neuroscience at Arizona State University, where she is a Quad Fellow, and Barrow Neurological Institute.
OAR: What were some of your biggest fears when you started college as an autistic individual and how have you been able to manage or overcome them?
Harker: As an autistic individual, some of my greatest fears in academia included judgment, criticism, lack of acceptance, miscommunication, and misunderstanding. To overcome these fears and challenges, I sought out accommodations at my university. Through this avenue, I was able to ensure that I could better understand what was being communicated to me by professors as well as ensure that I could process what was being said in my classes.
Regarding the social aspects of college and graduate school, I communicated with my trusted friends that autism is a part of who I am and that I may struggle with communicating. After I shared my identity and discussed my needs, my friends understood me better.
OAR: Was there anything you wish you had known before enrolling in college?
Harker: I think communication is an invaluable skill that is integral to functioning within a college setting, but interpersonal skills are rarely taught. I wish I had learned more about social support groups for autistic individuals so I could have further improved my ability to advocate for myself and communicate my needs.
I also wish I had known more about the opportunities to join clubs and organizations that promote neurodiversity. Many colleges have neurodiversity-centered clubs that create a safe place for neurodivergent individuals to confide in and relate to one another. Being involved in groups and clubs has been beneficial in helping to develop my communication skills and a support network.
OAR: Have you encountered any barriers in college? If so, how have you navigated through them?
Harker: Advocating for myself was a barrier. When I first entered college, one professor would not provide office hours assistance even though I was struggling to auditorily process what was being communicated in my language course. Due to this experience, I felt somewhat defeated and realized that it can be challenging to have my needs met in all scenarios. I talked to a college counselor who was able to establish accommodations for me so that I could read subtitles in class. What I learned from this experience is that resources may not present themselves until after you have had a negative experience. Although this may be discouraging, I learned not to give up and to keep striving to do my best.
OAR: Have you been in a situation where you felt the need to disclose your autism? If so, how did you go about disclosure? Do you have any advice for students with regard to disclosure?
Harker: I have been in many situations where I felt I needed to disclose my autism identity. When I disclose, I try to paint a picture of how autism affects me and how that experience may present differently than a neurotypical individual’s experience. I describe how every autistic individual is different and that for me, autism increases my challenges in auditory processing, overstimulation, and occasionally affects communication.
I also include how others can support me, such as by helping me relocate to a quiet space when I am overstimulated and advocating for me if something is hard to hear without necessarily stating that I have processing differences. Additionally, it helps if people kindly let me know if they didn’t understand something I said or explicitly tell me to do something/remember something without using metaphors and expressions.
Taking these steps has improved my ability to make my needs understandable while also helping my friends and acquaintances communicate with me.
OAR: How comfortable were you with socializing with new people and finding new friends or acquaintances? Do you have any tips for incoming students in navigating the social aspect of college?
Harker: College can be both an exciting and terrifying place to find new friends. At first, I was very scared to socialize with other students. To get past my fear, I made a point of introducing myself and describing my interests. Then I asked the other person to communicate what they’re interested in to try to find a connection. If I didn’t have anything in common with them, I would check to see if any parts of their outfit or other items indicated some commonality. If that didn’t work, I would ask them to talk more about their interests to see if I could also become excited about those same things. Over time, people gravitated towards me, and we became friends.
When making friends, individuals look for people with common interests and likes. If you make an effort to learn more about someone else’s interests, they will often reciprocate.
OAR: What has been the single most important lesson you learned in college?
Harker: The most important lesson I learned was to maintain mentors. My mentors have helped me learn how to adapt to different environments as well as introduced me to and helped me find opportunities. I would not be in graduate school without my mentors.
To find mentors, I suggest looking for other autistic college students who may be older than you, professors who have experience working with neurodivergent individuals, and those who have successfully followed a career path similar to the one you are pursuing.
OAR: What is the best advice you can give to incoming autistic college students?
Harker: Seek opportunities, make sure to take care of yourself, and never feel ashamed if you have to ask for help or accommodations. Accommodations exist to help us function because society does not always accommodate our needs. It is not shameful to ask for help, but rather admirable to be cognizant of what you need to support your success and happiness.
Finally, check in with yourself. Make sure you know what is making you happy and what helps you move toward your career and forward in your life journey. It is okay to switch interests and try new things. College is a place for exploring and learning about almost anything and everything. Take chances and have fun!