Hello! My name is Meaghan Northup. I am a junior business analytics major. In my free time, I am co-president of the French Club, a board member for Irish Consulting Club, and obviously a Notre Dame Admissions intern. Some of my proudest accomplishments at Notre Dame include being admitted to the Business Honors Program, completing the Holy Half Marathon, and my dorm (Pasquerilla West Hall) winning Women’s Hall of the Year while I served as Vice-President. Overall, I could not imagine a better college experience for myself. Balancing these responsibilities with my academic and professional careers has been extremely rewarding. However, one aspect of my life that is prevalent yet also hidden are my learning disabilities, ADHD and Dyslexia. In this blog, I hope to share my experience at Notre Dame with these differences. Although I am not an expert and everyone will face different challenges in college, I hope to help others realize that their differences are a strength and should be celebrated.
Pre-Notre Dame Background
When I was in first grade, I was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. In my early years, I attended a school for children with learning disabilities. For 9th grade and on, I attended the regular all-girls Catholic high school in my hometown. My takeaway from experiencing high school as a student with learning disabilities is that one must become very skilled at failure. For example, on my first quiz as a high schooler, I received a 50%. On the first half of the quiz, I answered every question on biology correctly… but I forgot the back. Transitioning from my elementary school to a rigorous high school took time for me to catch up, even if I did eventually graduate with honors. In that same biology class I remember that after studying for countless hours for the first exam, I received an unsatisfactory grade even as the other girls around me bragged about their effortless 100s. Looking back, each girl probably studied more than they said, but I definitely had catching up to do. I found success making flashcards for every subject, taking my exams in a quiet testing space one page at a time, and meeting with my teachers in the mornings.
Going to Notre Dame was another beast entirely. Quite honestly, I was terrified of how I would fare. I didn’t know if it would be possible for me to catch up to such amazing students from all around the world. I saw my all-girls Catholic high school in Kentucky and this global institution as two very different levels of difficulty. Writing this article as a junior, I obviously have a very different, more positive perspective. I hope however that reflecting on the impact of my learning disabilities in college can give others the confidence to know they belong and set themselves up for success.
My Academic Life
From my many years at a school for children with learning disabilities, my senior year research capstone project on the impact of learning disabilities on working adults, and my own personal experience, I have realized that the most success comes from playing to one’s strengths and mitigating their weaknesses. This sounds simple on the surface but is not always applied. To understand my academic experience, I’ll talk about my own strengths and weaknesses. My experiences are not necessarily unique to ADHD or Dyslexia but I hypothesize that they are most likely linked.
My weaknesses mostly impact my attention and motivation. In terms of my attention, I struggle to sit still and focus for long periods of time. For instance, I am prone to zoning out during lectures, readings take me many hours, and I can’t study in one place for very long. I am also very distracted by other people talking or moving around me. I really struggle to take any sort of quiz or exam around others. I am also more likely to make silly mistakes especially when I’m distracted. Finally, I take more time than others to adjust to new exam or quiz formats. It’s extremely common for me to score poorly on the first (and also the easiest exam) of the semester while others around me do very well.
Although these weaknesses surely impact me, I have found much success through creativity, accommodations, and a little bit of grit. In terms of my attention, the key is to mitigate distractions. Here are four ways I make sure I am paying attention to every class.
- Since day one of my freshman year, I have sat in the front of every class that I have ever taken. Obviously, I sometimes wish I could sit with my friends in other rows, but this system helps me to limit distractions and hone in to the professors’ lectures.
- I am a big fan of colorful, pretty, paper notes, especially for large lecture classes. I invested in really nice pens for myself so I can always be excited to write very clear and pleasing notes. This helps to keep me focused on the material even when I am struggling. I also suggest printing out the lecture slides and annotating them. I have found that when I am on my computer in class, I become distracted by my email and other things so it’s just better to not have it open. As an upperclassman, most of my major classes are coding so I’ve had to change my approach. Regardless, the key for me is to set clear boundaries with myself about what I can have open on my laptop, and what is not allowed in class.
- I find that having something to drink in class helps me sit still. Obviously, Starbucks is expensive (I have a Starbucks chai next to me as I write this) so I definitely don’t buy myself a latte every day. For Christmas last year, I was given an electric kettle. I use this almost every day. I brew myself tea in the morning and take it with me to class.
- I help myself stay focused by granting rewards for finishing my lectures and knocking them out early. I much prefer 8 AM classes to 3 PM ones. Then, after my classes I treat myself to lunches, runs, naps, and walks around the lake. Having something to look forward to after class keeps me going. The same is true when I am trying to study for a class.
The other big category of weakness comes from my propensity to mistakes, especially when I am distracted or unfamiliar with the layout of an exam. My first line of defense is that I take all my exams at the Sara Bea Testing Center. I was approved for accommodations and for each exam, I take them in a small, quiet room at the center. I also make extra effort before the first exam to familiarize myself with the layout. I always do the practice questions if provided and will go to office hours to ask questions or see examples before the first test. Additionally, having grace with myself is essential. I know my strengths and weaknesses well. Even if I don’t have the highest score on the first exam, I recognize that if I put in the work, I can substantially improve by the final.
My Social and Personal Life
My social life has been absolutely amazing. My best friends are girls I met during the first weekend of my freshman year in my dorm. They are the best people in the entire world. They are very understanding of me and appreciate me for who I am. Although, I don’t think ADHD has a huge impact on me socially, I think it definitely appears in my quirks. For instance, I have an almost endless amount of energy and enthusiasm. I can also be really focused on an idea or plan; I sometimes struggle to be flexible. Living closely with others can sometimes lead to conflict or disagreement due to this. I also have to be aware that I forget small details really easily like taking out the trash. Here are my best tips for having successful friendships in college and being a good roommate:
- I focus on active listening. When someone else is speaking with me, I try to repeat back what they say and acknowledge their feelings. I am intentional about this in order to not talk over others and miss out on their valuable perspectives.
- I recognize that my brain allows me to do an insane amount of things in a day. I am extremely extroverted and thrive with many deadlines, meetings, and social events. I have a close to endless amount of energy. However, I know that others in my life may need quiet or alone time. I try to be very aware of others, especially when I am in their rooms or making plans with them. Again, it all goes back to understanding the perspectives of those who think differently than me.
- I understand that my personality is wonderful but not for everyone. In college it’s okay to not be best friends with everyone. I show kindness to all but focus on prioritizing those who bring positivity, joy, and love to my life.
- I try to mitigate my chaos whenever I can. I make my bed first thing in the morning and clean up my space before I go to sleep at night. I even have a checklist with all my homework, chores, and other important daily to-dos. For instance, every two days I get an assignment called “check your texts and emails”. I also have an assignment every day titled “say a prayer.”
- I focus on reflection and continual growth. My favorite resource is the University Counseling Center which provides opportunities for individual and group counseling, workshops, and other tools.
- I go to mass every Sunday regardless of how much homework I have. I think that practicing one’s faith is nonnegotiable whether that is mass, meditation, or any practice. It brings me peace and sets me up for success for the rest of the week.
Overall, I can’t imagine a better college experience. Notre Dame is the best place I could have gone to school. I am so grateful to be in a place that supports me and allows me to grow in my academics, social life, and personal life. As a Notre Dame student with ADHD and dyslexia, it’s essential that I proactively solve my own problems and play to my strengths. Although my differences mean I have to think out of the box, I consider my ADHD to be a unique strength of mine in terms of my ability to set myself up for success, recover from setbacks, and creatively brainstorm solutions.
My advice to students with learning disabilities considering Notre Dame is to absolutely take a risk. All admitted students have earned their place at Our Lady’s University. Utilize your strengths and resources, have faith in yourself, and I am confident that you will succeed. With a little bit of resilience, grit, and good friends, you will find your place here and do more than you ever thought possible.