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By Marco Santana

When Charles Dion was in high school, he and his family had a tough time finding a school that supported his autism-related struggles.

Some said the condition that affects one in 36 children in the U.S. didn’t exist. Others said it was an excuse for failure.

This frustration along with a need to move around for his father’s job led to several relocations for his family.

As he approached college, he worried he would have to do it all over again, except on his own.

“I was moving entirely to a new place by myself,” he said. “Not knowing a single person worried me.”

But a group of college-readiness programs offered by Beacon College has helped alleviate his worries. In fact, it’s one reason that the school has bucked a nationwide trend of more students saying they feel unprepared for higher education than ever.

That’s according to the results of a survey conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Education Advisory Board, which polled more than 20,000 students nationwide and released the data in early June.

Meanwhile, Beacon, which serves students with various learning disabilities and attention issues, boasts five primary programs that help students in various stages of their education, from sophomore year in high school to college-level programs.

Alexander Morris-Wood Alexander Morris-Wood, Beacon’s associate vice president of student experience and transitions, said it’s one strategy that has helped the school consistently increase first-year retention rate.

“We recognize that everybody’s journey to college is different,” he said. “We are prepared for that and adjust our programs based on student needs and environmental needs.”

This fall, 88 percent of Beacon College students will have participated in at least one of the school’s transition programs.

The key to reaching students is normalizing their experiences, Morris-Wood said.

“Their experience is no different than others but we do teach them that the steps they will have to take might be a little more severe,” he said. “By starting the conversation much earlier, we are able to introduce them to programs in a scaffolded way and a slower way.”

The Navigator Prep program, which is available for students up to nine months before they graduate high school, convinced Helen Chinn to attend Beacon College.

She received a small taste of college life through a brief visit during spring break in 2019. As a rising senior at Westfield (N.J.) High School that summer, she navigated the three-week program and discovered that she wanted to attend.

“It’s a great way to understand what you’re getting into,” she said. “It taught me not to be afraid of being away from home.”

The program brought her to campus to meet with other prospective students, mentors and professors.

“I knew immediately that I wanted to come here and it gave me the confidence to do so,” she said.

Chinn now studies business management and hospitality with a minor in human services. She plans to graduate in May 2024.

However, before then, she will serve as a volunteer mentor with the Navigation Prep program, which expects to help 165 students this fall.

“I was once in their shoes and I want them to feel the same love I felt,” she said. “I want to show them how to make connections and keep in touch.”

Navigator Prep is just one of the offerings for Beacon College’s students and prospects.

Navigation Prep Jr. targets high school juniors.

Meanwhile, Navigator Prep College Coaching helps students through a semester-long program with one-to-one coaching and support.

High school sophomores can enroll alongside juniors and seniors in Summer for Success, a three-week campus immersion program.

Finally, Beacon Foundations offer live online courses for recent high school graduates.

Josh Hansen graduated from high school at the height of the pandemic.

For two years, he tried community college after graduating from high school in Centreville, Md., but it just wasn’t for him, he said.

Hansen, 21, who will be a junior this fall, found Beacon Foundations in the spring of 2022.

“It has been an amazing experience,” said Hansen, who says he regularly met with learning specialists and took advantage of the school’s writing center. “When I was going through virtual learning at other schools, there was not much interaction.”

Two years after his initial taste of college, Charles Dion feels much more comfortable.

He no longer worries about fitting in or finding people who he can get along with.
Now 20, the rising junior from Leesburg says he has a newfound confidence and serves as president of a light saber dueling club.

Because of Navigator Prep, he “went into college with at least a few familiar faces,” said Dion, who now mentors incoming students. “It wasn’t completely new to me. If I hadn’t had that experience, the beginning of college would have been a lot more difficult and would have affected my overall experience.”