A New Head Coach
by Amber Veverha '90
For as long as Rebecca West can remember, school has been for her an exercise in frustration.
"I couldn't figure out why I couldn't get my homework done at night," said the Calvin sophomore. "I just couldn't concentrate."
It wasn't just the homework. During tests, West's attention would wander and when she finally corralled it, precious time had been lost. She longed to be like her twin brother, who earned excellent grades without a constant struggle.
Her freshman year in high school, the problems came to a head and she and her parents sought help from the family doctor. After a battery of tests, West was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), a learning disability that makes focus, concentration, and organization difficult. The condition is sometimes controlled with medication, but exercise and coping skills are just as important.
Despite ADD, West is succeeding at Calvin. And she credits much of that success to a new coaching program at the Student Academic Services department. The program, launched this year, helps ADD students with regular coaching on studying, test-taking and coursework. Students who suspect they have ADD can be tested for the disorder through the program, which is currently assisting 20 students.
The program is the gift of Bill and Elaine Stoub of Stevensville, Mich., who have set up an endowment fund at Calvin that pays for an ADD counselor's position.
The gift came out of Bill Stoub's own experience with ADD.
More than 30 years ago, Stoub left Calvin as a third-year student, unable to finish the schooling because of ADD, he now believes. Diagnosed with the disorder just six years ago, he wants to make sure other ADD students get the support they need to keep them in college.
"It's very exciting to think that perhaps there are students that have missed (being diagnosed) that we might be able to catch," he said. "I hope, too, that others will find this cause worthwhile and be willing to support it financially."
Calvin has hired Lavonne Zwart to fill the newly created position. Zwart, a 1991 Calvin graduate and native Oshawa, Ontario, will work half-time for the Student Academic Services department and half-time for the Broene Counseling Center on campus, doing personal counseling. She holds a doctorate of psychology degree from Fuller Theological Seminary.
"We don't know what causes (ADD)," Zwart said, adding that most researchers understand ADD to be a physical problem of the brain. It's important students be tested for the disorder before they assume they have it, she said.
"It has to be lifelong, it has to cause impairment. It can't be accounted for by another major issue," she said. "It's not all ADD -- sometimes it's depression, sometimes it's anxiety."
For students that have ADD, Zwart assigns trained student coaches who are interested in psychology as a possible career. The mentors, who are supervised every other week, talk with the students and train them in the little tricks that can beat ADD's disorganizing effects.
"It's really difficult for them to internally keep things in mind and to schedule things," Zwart said. "We get them to use a planner...so it's all written down for them. Someone's dorm room that might be in disarray -- a coach might come in and help them use a filing system."
For Matthew Weening, a sophomore from Calgary, the coaching has meant he has a valuable weekly checkup on how he is using his time and gets tips on avoiding distractions while working.
"I'd been diagnosed with (ADD) about two months before last Christmas because I had struggled with things," said Weening, who is majoring in communications and business. "It seemed no matter how hard I worked, I didn't get anything done."
Tests were the hardest. Weening found that sights and sounds that passed under other students' radar -- someone getting up to leave the room, someone softly tapping a pencil -- would constantly pull his attention away from the test.
The coaching program taught him to study in a place where he is completely alone even the library is too busy a spot for him to work -- and to do everything on his laptop computer, so all the material is one place. And Weening now is allowed to take his tests in an area separate from his classmates, cutting down on the attention-stealing distractions.
He said the program's support also is valuable because friends and acquaintances don't always understand that it's ADD, and not a lack of trying, that Weening struggles with.
"A lot of them I know think I'm a goof and don't take things seriously," he said.
West, who plans to teach math and science at the junior high level, said just having someone to regularly hold her accountable for keeping to her schedule has helped. Her coach is Calvin senior Kara Slagter. "I wrote out my schedule for the week and on my own time I went through and tried to figure out how much free time I have. I discovered I have about 40 hours a week. That just kind of put things in perspective, (showing) just how much time I've wasted in the past."
In another session, Slagter helped West organize her philosophy paper, showing her how to shape the information she had gathered into a coherent thesis.
West's situation is doubly difficult because she also has dyslexia, another learning disorder that in her case makes reading difficult and which causes her to transpose letters and numbers.
With the permission of West's professors, Margaret Vriend, Calvin's coordinator of services to students with disabilities, gives West's tests to her orally.
"She reads each question to me and will re-read it if I need it," West said. West states the answer and, in the case of multiple-choice exams, Vriend pencils in the answer of the correct letter, because West confuses lower-case "b" and "d." West, who learns best by hearing, also has most of her textbooks on tape.
"Part of the reason I came to Calvin is they had such a strong learning-disabled program," she said. West is looking forward to the -99 school year, when she said Zwart will organize a support group for students with ADD. She would like to make friends with others who have the disorder, and to share what she's learned from her experiences.
"This doesn't have to slow you down. You aren't a failure if you have ADD," she said. "It doesn't have to ruin your life or keep you from achieving the goals you set for yourself. Basically (I keep in mind) the Bible verse: 'I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength."'