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Blugolds travel to Washington, D.C., to lobby for students in higher education with learning disabilities

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Erik Marcotte (left) and Caden Joergens spent several days in Washington, D.C., this summer lobbying Congress for legislation regarding students in higher education with learning disabilities. The Blugolds are leaders of the UW-Eau Claire chapter of Eye to Eye-National, a mentoring movement that focuses on elementary and middle school students with ADHD and learning differences. They joined students from around the country for the national “Learning Disability Day of Action.” (Submitted photo)

Campus leaders from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire joined advocates from around the country in Washington, D.C., this summer to lobby for legislation regarding students in higher education with learning disabilities.

However, it wasn’t UW-Eau Claire administrators or faculty or staff who met with members of Congress and national education leaders — it was two undergraduate students who shared their personal experiences during the national “Learning Disability Day of Action” efforts.

“We young adults educated members of Congress on what learning disabilities mean, how they affect our lives and education, and what can be done to create more equal access to education for those with learning disabilities,” says Erik Marcotte, a senior from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, of his advocacy efforts in the nation’s capital.

Last year, Marcotte and Caden Joergens, a senior computer science major and physics minor from Louisville, Kentucky, were leaders for the campus chapter of Eye to Eye, a national mentoring movement that focuses on elementary and middle school students with ADHD and learning differences. UW-Eau Claire was a charter member of Eye to Eye when it was established on campus in 2016.

Eye to Eye-National invited the two Blugolds to Washington, D.C., to join its lobbying efforts. This is the first time UW-Eau Claire students have participated in “Learning Disability Day of Action” activities.

“This is not something that our mentors have done in the past, which says a lot about their character,” Dustin Behlke, the campus liaison for the Eye to Eye-National’s Eau Claire chapter, says of Joergens and Marcotte.

Advocating for change

The Blugolds and other Eye to Eye-National student leaders from around the country participated in seminars and more than 50 meetings with education leaders and members of Congress.

Their goal was to advocate for the RISE Act, which supports students with learning disabilities at postsecondary institutions; and the IDEA act, which would provide funding for special education, including funding for research, teacher training and resources.

“A big issue in schools is the lack of education and knowledge teachers and counselors have on ADHD and LDs, which strengthens stigmas surrounding ADHD and LDs,” Joergens says of why the legislation is so important.

Marcotte says it was incredible to meet with some of the country’s top education leaders, including Miguel Angel Cardona, the U.S. secretary of education.

“Secretary Cardona and his team were kind and seemed invested in our stories,” Marcotte says. “Together, we all listened to firsthand experiences and worked with Secretary Cardona on solutions that the U.S. Department of Education could start working on to aid our concerns.”

A native of Minnesota, Marcotte also met with a representative of Sen. Tina Smith’s office to discuss how the RISE Act could help students with learning disabilities transfer their learning accommodations to college. They also talked about the current mental health crisis and how it’s connected to students with learning disabilities, he says.

For Marcotte, another highlight of the advocacy initiative was meeting a brain chemistry expert.

“During a panel, I got to ask the brain chemist about how nutrition is linked to the latest research and development on brain chemistry and learning disabilities,” Marcotte says. “This question was aimed at my concern regarding the symptoms that come from prescription medications for ADHD. Me being a chemistry major and interested in social interactions, this conversation gave me a new perspective to build from after I graduate.”

About Eye to Eye

Eye to Eye is a national mentoring movement that focuses on elementary and middle school students with ADHD and learning differences. The program pairs middle and high school students with college students who have similar disabilities, giving the youth mentors to look up to who’ve overcome similar obstacles in academic settings, Behlke says.

The program uses an art-based curriculum, with a goal to help students understand how they learn, to assist them in building self-advocacy skills and to empower them to be proud of their learning differences, Behlke says.

“These are skills our mentors had to learn on her own as they forged their way through high school,” Behlke says.

Last year, UW-Eau Claire’s chapter had three mentors working with 12-15 students at Altoona Middle School, Behlke says. Numbers are down compared to pre-COVID years, but he’s confident they will go up again now that most students are back to in-person learning.

While the numbers were small last year, the students’ impact on the middle school students has been significant, Behlke says.            

“Erik and Caden are such wonderfully motivated and driven mentors and represent exactly what the Eye-to-Eye program was hoping to capture,” Behlke says. “They are both willing to be creative, vulnerable, but most importantly, they show up.

“They are there for their mentees each week and form meaningful relationships that allow everyone to grow and learn about themselves. They are also great ambassadors for UWEC, as they represent us in the best possible way.”

Marcotte says he was confident that his efforts during the “Learning Disability Day of Action” would make a positive difference in the lives of others. The surprise, he says, is how much his experiences in Washington, D.C., changed him.

“The impact I left was great, but the impact left on me was even greater,” Marcotte says. “I finally found a community that I belonged to and wasn’t just an ally to. It moved me to tears.”

Joergens agrees, saying their time in Washington, D.C., with other students associated with Eye to Eye-National was a powerful experience. He says that for him, a “major part of Eye to Eye and the D.C. trip was the community.”

Joergens says he was the only student in his high school classes with accommodations relating to ADHD/LD, so there was no sense of community or support.

“There’s not a strong ADHD/LD community because many people struggle with the stigmas,” Joergens says. “The D.C. trip was only three days, but in that time we all became close friends. It was an amazing experience. Conversations flowed differently, and we shared similar lived experiences, which was amazing.

“One of the fantastic things about Eye to Eye is that the mentees get a chance to build a community and see that they aren’t alone, and the mentors also build a community. It’s so important to know you aren’t alone and to find people who you can talk to and know they will understand and not judge. Eye to Eye has given me a lot of purpose in my life.”

Changing lives

When Marcotte graduates in December, he’ll have a degree in chemistry, a minor in environment, society and culture, and a lifetime of memories from his years of competing for the Blugolds as a member of its swim and dive team.

He also will take with him an ADHD diagnosis, a diagnosis that inspired him to join Eye to Eye-National, which he describes as “the most impactful journey of my college career.”

“I am passionate about exploring new things and people,” Marcotte says. “Every person’s brain has a unique way of operating, and learning how chemistry is associated with brain operation and social relationships is where I hope to take my degree after I graduate.”

Marcotte credits the staff in UW-Eau Claire’s Office of Services for Students with Disabilities with helping him find his place on campus and with connecting him to the Eye to Eye-National movement. SSD currently serves 720 students on campus, facilitating accommodations and services to students with disabilities that ensure equal access to university programs, services and activities.

SSD staff thought he’d be a good fit for the national program, something he says they were “absolutely right about,” Marcotte says.

It’s rewarding to help the younger students understand their unique learning styles, Marcotte says. It’s especially meaningful to know he’s giving the middle school students opportunities that weren’t available to him at that age.

“I faced many life challenges associated with my ADHD,” Marcotte says, noting that he didn’t start getting proper help for it until November 2020 when he already was attending UW-Eau Claire. “I wish I would’ve had help earlier in life. So, I’m confident I’ve made a positive influence on my students’ lives. I hope that it will help them in their futures, in and out of school.”