How I Succeeded in College With ADHD and Learning Disabilities


If you had told me when I was in second grade that I was going to work in the field of education, I would have laughed. My reaction would not result from any belief that education is humorous, but because at that time I was struggling in various areas of school. Furthermore, my struggles were not strictly academic; I was being bullied, told I was “stupid” and I was beginning to believe it. As the “space cadet” in my classes, I was thinking about what sport I was playing after school or how I was going to make it through the day without getting beaten up or mercilessly teased.

The bullying stopped in middle school, but the damage had been done. I believed the spiteful commentary that I was “stupid.” Luckily, I did have one blessing: friends on which I could rely and a solid set of social skills. Overall I was well-liked, and my friends didn’t judge me for any perceived lack of academic prowess.

As I moved through middle school and high school, I was in lower-level classes for kids with learning differences and ADHD. Additionally, I had a resource period every day where I would be expected to do my homework. I learned I was quite talented at asking my resource teachers for help and subsequently having them complete my assignments, while I sat back and thought I was “winning.”

As I was pushed through high school, I had a below average ACT score and GPA. My college counselor at school told me that if I wanted to go to college, I would need to go to a two-year school. She said I couldn’t get into a “real” college. This assertion further reinforced my continued low perceptions of my academic ability.

I ended up going to Curry College, a four year school outside of Boston with great learning support. I continued to thrive socially and stumble academically. I could not comprehend why I was struggling so much. It seemed that while I understood the content, my organization was non-existent. After being at Curry for three and a half semesters, I stopped going to class, avoided my tutor, was lying to my family about my grades and felt terrible about myself. I didn’t know what my friends were doing in college that I wasn’t doing. Before I knew it, I was told my sister was coming to pick me up.

The following semester, I enrolled at Chicago’s Roosevelt University. I started strong, but as the semester continued I became discouraged with my ability to sustain success. I isolated myself. Before long, I had withdrawn again.

At this point, I became completely lost and without direction. I had a couple mediocre jobs I didn’t remain at for long for various reasons. Eventually I found myself playing video games in my basement for days on end, avoiding friends and family because I didn’t know what was “wrong” with me. I felt like a failure.

As a 21-year-old, I was finally, properly diagnosed with ADHD in addition to my other learning issues. Some people might be bothered or upset with such a diagnosis, but for me that wasn’t the case. I was relieved at the possibility that I might be able to find the resources that I needed.

My mother, who has a Master’s degree in special education and is an independent educational consultant, was not surprised with this news. She had been asking since I was in elementary school about the possibility I could have ADHD. All the educational professionals, including a well-respected neuropsychologist, said no. After she heard the news, we started talking about next steps. Luckily for me, my mom was the perfect person to help me; she makes her living helping students with learning differences find the correct college or post-secondary placement.

I still remember when my mom asked me, “Do you want to go to college?” I was sitting in the basement with my arms crossed, head looking to the ground. I was miserable. With my eyes red and teary, I told her that I absolutely did. At that moment, I wasn’t sure about anything except that I could do college work and succeed.

By the winter of 2006, I was enrolled at Landmark College in their Bridge Program for students who have struggled at their previous college. Landmark College is in a tiny town in Vermont and only serves students with learning differences and/or ADHD. I felt this was my last chance; if I didn’t succeed here, I wouldn’t be graduating from college.

After three semesters, I found myself confident, successful, and utilizing new strategies I was taught. I was even telling friends I couldn’t hang out because I was going to the library. The library? I was allergic to the library my entire life and I was going there to work almost every day. I had never loved school until then. I was truly excited about learning and continuing to thrive.

In 2008 I transferred back to Roosevelt University. My hunger to learn continued. Not only was I doing well, but I helped Roosevelt University develop a peer mentoring program for incoming freshman who were at risk. Finally I had found success in school and could appreciate the skills I had gained. I still get chills thinking about the day I was sitting in the historic Auditorium Theater at Roosevelt University, listening to Chris Matthews give his commencement speech. I was reflecting on the journey I had taken to get to that point. Then I heard “Jordan Burstein.” I walked onto that stage with a huge smile on my face as I shook the hand of the president of the University and received my diploma. I looked into the crowd to see my mom shedding tears of joy or possibly relief. Her baby boy had done it! I was a college graduate.

It was the summer of 2010, and I was a new college graduate entering a brutal job market. I began working as a Mental Health Specialist at a psychiatric unit on the north side of Chicago. With the exception of working 12-hour shifts and starting on the night shift, I loved that job. I was good at it, too. I was great with patients and really enjoyed talking to them and helping them through road bumps in their lives. Working with mentally ill people provided me with invaluable experience.

After working there for three years, I had learned so much but I was ready to move on. I talked with my mom about where to go from there. She asked me to join her practice. My particular academic journey would allow me to bring a true understanding of the importance of a positive academic experience.

Now, like my mother has for the last 15 years, I work with high school students applying for college. However, I also work with younger students who are struggling in their current academic placement. Occasionally I find myself slipping back into the same timid kid who lacked confidence, but I am always able to remind myself of how hard I have worked to get to where I am today. I am a thriving partner in a business, and am working with students who are in the same place I was 13 short years ago. My experience and insight into the students with whom we work allows me not only to help students find good matches, but also to help them understand how much college differs from high school.

I can’t believe I was the kid in the basement, lost in life, directionless, and now I am helping students find their way. My journey was not completely enjoyable, but I gained invaluable knowledge because of it. I wouldn’t exchange my life for an easier, more conventional path.

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Thinkstock photo by Jacob Ammentorp Lund.

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