Trouble In Academia a post from Davis Finch

IMG_3965My name is Davis Finch and I have been involved with Square Peg since October 2011. I am 24-years-old and am on the higher end of the autism spectrum. I started out just taking riding lessons, but in the past six months have become a lot more involved in the organization. This is my first blog post on this website.

This past summer I had a disastrous experience with the admissions and disabled students departments at San Francisco State University. I had received a conditional acceptance letter as a transfer student in December 2012 and, after meeting the conditions as I understood them to be (confusion about the specific requirements caused me to fill out the application incorrectly), I was denied admission in late June, two months before I was supposed to start classes. At first I believed it was some sort of mistake and that everything would be cleared up quickly and rationally, but, alas, I was wrong. It started with some impersonal bureaucratic letters and emails that I found very disrespectful and ended with me storming off the campus after a
last-ditch meeting vowing never to have anything to do with the institution, ever again! What upset me greatly about the way I was treated was their lack of compassion, ignorance about autism, and attempts to pin all the blame on me while holding the deeply flawed system they work for in high regard. As a result of this, I have left academia and do not intend to return anytime soon.

As I thought this over, I realized that the core problems I had were not so much with SF State, but with the CSU system as a whole. After taking a semester off from education following high school, I started at College of Marin in January 2008. I spent the next five years (ten semesters) learning the system, navigating around roadblocks, and eventually earning my AA in political science in December 2012. Overall, it was a good experience. Some of the keys to my success were a level of autonomy that allowed me to take as many classes as I could handle (usually 2) and work out reasonable agreements with teachers when problems arose, a disabled students department that (usually) helped me when I needed them and had adequate influence in the school to get things done, an academic culture that did not shame me for being there for several years, a clear rubric explaining AA requirements, and an efficient electronic system for enrolling in classes.

I was hoping SF State, although much bigger, would be similar in those regards. Maybe it would have been once I got settled in, but I never got the chance because of two major flaws in the system that I found insurmountable. The first one, which was the reason my admission was rescinded, is SF State and all other CSU’s (I think the UC’s do it too, but I’m not sure) discard hard-earned units from community colleges that are not compatible with their seemingly arbitrary course requirements. For me, this meant that even though I should have had more than enough units to transfer, I was found to be half-a-unit short and thus denied admission. Even if I had been admitted, the lost units would have meant at least an
extra semester at the university, which would have ruined my goal of upgrading my degree to a BA in four years. The second major flaw in the system is the disabled students department doesn’t give you any serious help unless you are enrolled as a student, which is a major problem if admission is what you need help with. This meant that although I was allowed an appeal, I had no help from the disabled students office and had no recourse when the established processes used for resolving unit shortfalls were inappropriate for my situation. These two policies combined to make appealing the denial of admission a humiliating and ultimately pointless action and made me feel discriminated against, disrespected, and unwanted.

Experiences like the one I had with SFSU prove just how special and needed organizations like Square Peg are. The generally non-hierarchical, flexible, and compassionate atmosphere at the ranch is a refreshing exception from the condescending, bureaucratic, and often downright discriminatory conditions that are all too common in our society. In military and law enforcement, it is probably necessary, but why do social services, the legal system, academia, and the corporate world have to be so hostile to people with disabilities and people who are just different? That is something we as a society must change, and organizations like Square Peg are our best hope.

Question: “If I donate to Square Peg, where does the money go?”Answer – here

Let’s start a movement!


“Let’s Start a Movement”

Starting Square Pegs has given me the opportunity to meet and interact with some really famous people. Anne Firth Murray, Jane Goodall, Sir Elton John (seriously, he kissed me on both cheeks!) and more. But there is one couple that I have had the unlikely opportunity to sit across the table from and glean from them whatever knowledge they might be willing to share, is a series of casual meetings with Gerry and Lilo Leeds.

Here’s a quick excerpt from a bio written for their latest book “Wonderful Marriage”

They are both refugees from Nazi Germany. They arrived in the U.S. with virtually no money, but eventually became successful business entrepreneurs, and continued more recently as social entrepreneurs, with a primary focus on improving the education of children in poor communities. In 1971, they launched the now highly successful publishing company, CMP Media, Inc., which became a leading publisher of business newspapers, magazines and Internet services for the high-tech industries-electronics, communication and computers. They established a set of principles for the company that became a guide for all their future business and management activities. The company became known for its excellent socially responsible policies, its great products, its great services and, especially, for its pioneering on-site infant and child day care center established by Lilo Leeds. Fortune and Working Mother magazine repeatedly cited CMP as one of the “100 Best Companies to Work For.”

Yeah, pretty cool. After 56 years of marriage, they are still working together and still focused on the same goals that they set out to prove when they launched CMP: To improve the education of children in poor communities. And they do it with a focused, no nonsense, multi-tiered approach that works. Go ahead, Google it.

So here I am, at the Stanford Park Hotel on the eve of my 40th birthday. Lilo meets us down in the restaurant and she’s supposed to call and wake up Gerry to join us. Problem is, he’s turned off the phone. Lilo peers over her glasses, blinks and gracefully excuses herself from the table to go and wake Gerry herself. They re-appear soon, hand in hand. They are both kind to the waiter but also very clear about what they will eat and how it should be prepared. Even the waitstaff is soon charmed by the quiet elderly couple. Gerry looks a bit tired at first but as soon as the discussion turns to education or to his successful marriage, he’s wide awake.

Gerry’s voice is soft and I have to lean in close to catch every word. Lilo chimes in between bites of her dinner, she’s got to keep her sugar level up to manage her diabetes. I don’t want to miss a single syllable from either of them and so I’ve hardly touched my food (very rare for me). Gerry talks about how the schools in the poor communities are failing the students and perpetuating the poverty. He tells us how their organization at it’s core believes that students are human beings with assets, talents and feelings who must be treated with respect, dignity and care. That developing, hiring and supporting talented teachers lies at the center of improved student learning. Believing that parents are a valuable source of information about their children’s strengths, talents and aspirations and they are consulted as partners in their children’s education.

Wow! It seems so simple! So clear. And yet, our goverment can only come up with changing testing standards and holding teachers accountable to them without support for the teachers and dwindling resources and outdated programs. Not by re-thinking how schools see the students as our nation’s assets rather than potential liabilities?

Gerry Leeds looked me straight in the eye and said “We aren’t taking on a project, we’re starting a movement.”

Now THAT is something to get excited about. Seriously. rachelface

To which I say, let’s get this party started!

Are you in?