An easier transition to college

COSTA MESA — The transition to college can be a rough one.

It's a crash course in how to live within a budget — and without Mom and Dad's help with chores and meals.

For students with developmental disabilities, being away from their support networks can be too much.

But aid is available through a Florida-based private company.

"We're kind of the safety net for ensuring their success," said Erica Holding, program director of College Living Experience, a national business that opened a Costa Mesa location last month at 2183 Fairview Road, Suite 101.

College Living Experience helps young adults with learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), high-functioning autism and mild mental retardation have a successful college experience — or reach another goal — while helping them transition to independence through teaching social, academic and independent living skills.

Some students who come to the organization have tried college and were unsuccessful, or know they wouldn't be able to succeed without help, Holding said.

"It's almost like students with disabilities have been running a race their whole life, and they've faced all these hurdles, like hurdle after hurdle after hurdle," Holding said. "Then they get through high school, and they are 500 feet from the finish line, and everyone goes, 'good luck,' and they're kind of left to their own devices to get through college."

Tom Schrank, 19, has been working with the College Living Experience in Washington, D.C., since fall 2010, when he enrolled right after high school.

"I wanted to learn to live independently," he said, adding he saw others struggle with tasks like budgeting and chores and wanted to learn those skills. "I thought this program would be a terrific help."

Schrank, who is working on his associate's degree before transferring to a four-year university, said the program has been the biggest help academically with tutoring before a test, and it taught him to use the syllabus to better understand an instructor's expectations.

Living away from home was also a struggle for the Maine native. Besides dealing with homesickness, Schrank needed to re-learn how to do chores and manage his time, while also learning how to pay his bills and rent each month.

Schrank said he plans to continue in the program until he transfers, but already he said he feels confident living independently.

"I think [College Living Experience] is a great program to teach us all the important life skills we experience after college," he said.

Through the program, students get everything from one-on-one tutoring and lessons on using public transportation, to participating in social outings and living in an apartment complex, either alone or with others in the program.

The students are given weekly, personalized schedules that map out everything from when they should wake up in the morning to where they should go grocery shopping, do laundry, chores, study and exercise.

The services are scaled back as students progress, with the average student staying in the program for two to three years, said Jessica Wing, academic liaison.

Moving to College Living Experience allows Holding to continue helping developmentally disabled students become fully functional.

"It's the same thing. It's watching people take charge of their own lives," she said.

The biggest challenge for Holding and her staff is to help students believe in themselves.

Holding said it is a long process of building up the students' skills and then gaining confidence from those skills.

The company recommends its students only take two fun classes their first semester to start experiencing success in school before building up to some of the more challenging ones, Wing said.

"I think the struggle is to help young adults learn to believe in themselves," Holding said. "A lot of the times, there is such a focus on their disability that they take on the idea that they're disabled, too — in a way that kind of disables them."

Twitter: @britneyjbarnes

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