Her Story: What it's Like Having Learning Style Differences in College

Throughout the course of my education, I’ve always had this idea that I should be an over-achiever in the classroom. I always wanted A’s on papers and to ace exams. Even in elementary school, I took my SOLs super-seriously. I craved the prestige of attending a high caliber-university, like many people do. Yet, for me, school has not always been easy. It has even been a great source of stress, anxiety, and frustration.


I have learning style differences- dyscalculia, a working-memory deficit, a processing deficit, and Attention Deficit Disorder, which largely manifested themselves in inattentiveness and weaker executive functioning. I was particularly challenged by subjects involving mathematics and hard sciences. My story began by being presented with a challenge, and then setting out to prove my doubters wrong. 

I remember in high school, I never felt like I fit into the box of the “standard” educational system. I felt misunderstood by my peers and even a few teachers, as if they were confused by the fact that I came across as smart and articulate, yet had learning disabilities. Or, even vice versa, they thought I never studied and would end up at the local community college. I thought some people were perceiving me as a bimbo, when the truth was- I was a dreamer. You could say I felt a mixed bag of reactions and judgments from others, and in general, these people didn’t know the real me.

Like many students with learning style differences, I learned that I needed to compensate for my weaknesses in other ways, like finding confidence in public speaking skills, self-advocacy, and simply working harder than most people. When you have learning style differences, it becomes more important to build positive relationships with your professors and other students, as well. Creating this awareness and mastering skills for success takes time. When you think differently, you need to understand how the educational system works, then cater your study habits in order to succeed academically. You need to work at communication skills and overcome pride when it comes to seeking help in your classes.

In high school, I realized that I had strengths in creative and artistic fields. I excelled in acting, music, photography, and writing. I was active in my high school’s choir and theater program. Yet, I was constantly challenged in mathematics and sciences, which created an inner conflict for me and caused my self-confidence to dwindle. It even turned into a scenario where I was afraid to disclose my learning style differences to guys I was interested in out of a fear that they would think I was stupid. This was irrational, but it was my thought on the matter. Some of my “friends” even considered the levels of math and science I was taking “easy” and would even say that to my face. They were immature and superficial, not seeing any kind of big picture of how other people think. There was even a point where I was very much “over” school, and had little interest in attending college, constantly daydreaming as an escape.

Attending Marymount University was tremendous for me and for my family. While I had not yet mastered the educational system in my first semester, and my grades were not the ever-coveted 4.0, I still persisted. I remember what it felt like to earn the distinction of Dean’s List in the first semester of my sophomore year. It felt like some kind of intellectual ecstasy, which my heart craved for so long, giving me personal satisfaction that I was truly capable of success. I didn’t believe it at first. While I’m not sure if other people think of the Dean’s List in such a spiritual way, this is what it meant to me. And, to get to this point, I developed a new appreciation for school. I often visited the tutoring center, met with professors in office hours, and found my own special corner in the library. After settling into my English major, my old soul began to thrive, as I would make connections to a text I was reading to life as I knew it.

Simultaneously, everything was coming together, as I began making more connections on campus and frequently participating in class. While I still encountered the occasional vibes from others whom I felt were making judgments about me having learning style differences, or whom simply were uneducated about them, I cared about it much less. In college, while you have to drive the system of self-advocacy on your own, I do think it’s easier. No awkward IEP meetings with your parents, no obnoxious high-schoolers pestering you, and you encounter more supportive people. By my sophomore year at Marymount, I knew how to advocate for myself and express my thoughts, my grades were good, and I had a vision for my future. When you know how to succeed, your obstacles become less relevant.

Whenever I meet someone with dyscalculia, dyslexia, a working memory deficit, ADD, or the like, I know that I have found an instant friend and kindred spirit. And, as I have grown and matured in college, I meet more and more people like myself, who once found school miserable, yet overcame their challenges. Learning style differences are more common than you know.

So, why am I writing this now? There are very few college students who write on this topic. There are too many misconceptions on what it is like to have learning style differences in college. I’m fed up with ignorant people equating “learning style difference” with “stupid.” I want to show other people who have been in similar situations that they can accomplish great feats, if they persist and work hard. I want to be a role model for my 16-year-old brother with ADHD, so he decides to aim high.

The biggest reason why I advocate for this cause is because I want younger students with learning style differences to know “You can do it.” In a recent educational survey, the results showed that 19 percent of students with learning style differences attend a four-year-college. Let’s change that together. Conceiving a brighter future is the first step.

The real world may not provide accommodations, but life is not a standardized test. Life is not about your GPA and your resume. True success goes much deeper than academic achievements. It’s about knowing what you’re good at and incorporating that into your career. It’s about building genuine connections with other people, and building lasting relationships. It’s about marrying someone who treats you well. It’s about finding your passions in life and losing yourself in them. School is not the cornerstone of life.

The most successful people use their time wisely, and know how to create a work-life balance. And, in college I mastered an educational system that initially I was truly not cut out for, and found success. In May of 2015, I will graduate from Marymount University, and plan to attend graduate school at Georgetown University in the fall. At the time I am writing this, I have a winning streak with all of the programs I have heard back from.

I now see that I have become the person I never dreamed I would be, and this is only the beginning of my story. I have found a vibrant confidence in my talents and skills, and am grateful to the Most High. I thank God every day for all of the beautiful ways He has blessed me, and every dream of mine that has become true. Today, I use my learning style differences as a platform in conversations with other people to show them how great He truly is and how far determination can take you. I will also soon start giving speeches about my story at local high schools. I am passionate about life, and so much more open and free in comparison to how I used to hide my learning style differences from others. I have shed the old skin- so to speak. So many good things have happened to me over the past year, and I could not be any more excited to graduate and see where my future takes me.

If my story resonates with you or you can find a kinship to your own, know this is only the beginning. You CAN and you WILL go far. 


[Image Credit: Julita Cardenas]