What does it take for a young person to stick with it through college graduation? We decided to ask a few of our most recent college grads — who took different paths through college, at different institutions — about their journeys through college. Read an interview with Mikael Brooks below, and click here to connect with stories of other Common Ground alumni. 

mikaelbrooksWhere did you go to school? What did you study?

I graduated this May with a degree in psychology, Magna Cum Laude, from University of Bridgeport.

Who and what helped you stick in school?

I think I succeeded partly due to and partly in spite of my mental disorder. Being on the autism spectrum has always been a guiding part of my life, both in my struggles and my successes. Being autistic can cause problems in how people perceive me, or in how I perceive them. The essence of the disorder can change how I approach things — sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Social interactions can become harder. But this is also very importantly why I went to college, and how I struggled to get through it. I have always seen it as a challenge — something I can disprove about how people see me. And also something I can work toward — I’ve always wanted to work with people, not just with autism spectrum disorders, but people with a wide range of mental conditions.

One of the things that was influential in my success was my ability to utilize various forms of meditation to keep myself grounded and mindful, to keep myself calm and composed, no matter how stressful college became.

Meditation is something I picked up while I was in middle school. I was dealing with a lot of bullying, and hard time with other students. In order to keep me calm and composed, my social worker suggested that I learn to meditate. She was a strong advocate and friend for me when I was in middle school. It was something that Farmer Joe, Common Ground’s social worker, helped me with, too — who was also a large part of my success both in high school and in college.

I was also put into an environment at Common Ground where my peers actually saw me as part of the group — where I was appreciated and had friends for a change. The community was really important — Where I could see that there was something about me that was actually good. This made me feel like I had a chance of success.

My family was an important driving factor, of course…. They helped me, let me live here. They made the experience possible.

Another thing is my art — the ability to draw also helped me in college a lot. Not a lot of people think of things like drawing or singing as something that can help you in an academic atmosphere — but with the ability to draw or express myself through images, often I had projects that I blew out off the water because they had creative elements that made them stand out. Not everyone can apply the skills they have and the passions they have to the task at hand. If you love something, you can bring it into pretty much anything. It becomes one of the strongest tools you have.

What about the college-going was a surprise, or was different from your expectations?

For one, the difficulty level in college is somewhat overplayed when you’re in high school. I had a lot of anxiety about college in high school. I got the impression that if you didn’t go in prepared for everything, you’ll be knocked off your feet. One of the best things that I had at Common Ground was some of the preparation I got for college — specifically in AP classes, classes that really pushed for that extra level of difficulty. I was looking at some of the work I had to do, and thinking, “really, is this it?” It made me afraid of college, but when I actually got there, I was definitely more than prepared for the challenges I would face. In college, the hardest essay I wrote was in my Human Evolutions class, and it was the only one harder than the essays I wrote in AP language and composition. You were definitely more accountable for what you did than in high school. But oftentimes, people over-stress the difficulty of college, and that can cause more stress than is really necessary.

What other support do you wish Common Ground had provided you?

Something that Common Ground could have done to help me: life skills training. Taxes, and what the hell with the student loans? My mom helped me a lot with knowing the way money worked. I went to college, and I thought I was doing well — and I turned around halfway through my senior year, and I looked at the loans — some were subsidized, some were unsubsidized. What was going on? I feel like there was preparation for how to do FAFSA, but not what it actually meant.

What are you up to post-graduation? What’s next for you?

I am taking a year off while I apply to doctoral programs. I just got the GRE done, and am looking for work. So, for the time being, I’m applying to jobs, and trying to get one. I have a lot of volunteer experiences that I can draw on, thanks in part to Common Ground, and specifically to Joe Lesiak, and the special education department. I spent a pretty good amount of my time during college interning at Common Ground. That not only helped me with some of my classes, but it also gave me experience in the kind of work I was interested in doing, as well as create future connections that have been used after college. That’s provided job references, as well.