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Providing student-focused support from application to graduation

Learning Differences Programme / Partner story

Photo by RUT MIIT on Unsplash 

This spring, as the latest cohort of graduates walked across the stage at East Carolina University (ECU) to accept their degrees, nine of them received an extra cheer as graduates of the college’s STEPP programme.  

STEPP supports students with identified learning differences (such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia) by providing them with the academic, social, and life skills to navigate college life – and beyond. To this end, STEPP, which stands for Supporting Transition and Education through Planning and Partnership, is overturning stereotypes and statistics about people with learning disabilities in college education. 

This spring’s graduates included Lydia Pinto, who achieved a major in Recreation Therapy. “The STEPP programme is the most supportive and loving group on campus, I am so grateful for the chance to be in a programme where encouraging each other’s success is so common,” she says “No matter what part of campus something happens in, the STEPP programme is the first to congratulate me and support me.” 

From a student’s senior year at high school to their graduate careers or further studies, STEPP is there to support young people with learning differences who aspire to obtain a college education. The programme coaches high school students through ECU’s application and admissions process, and helps ease their transition into college life throughout their freshman year. 

Once enrolled in college, the students have access to extra support from dedicated subject tutors, structured study hall hours, assistive technology, and mentoring from ECU graduates. In addition to academic and career advice, fun on-campus initiatives like No One Eats Alone ensure that STEPP students find college an inclusive and welcoming place. 

“The staff and faculty of the programme really make an effort to understand who you are and how you learn, creating the best college career possible,” says West Williams, an ECU STEPP student. “People believe in me, and therefore it helps me believe in myself when it gets really tough.” 

Since 2006, the retention rate for students going into their second year as continued participants in the programme is 93 per cent. 86 per cent of students in STEPP have graduated or are on track to graduate (compared to national estimated graduation rates of 34 per cent for students with learning differences). 

And it’s not just the programme’s students who learn from the programme, as former graduate mentor and tutor Autumn DeMartino explains: “As a tutor and mentor, your goal is to help the students learn and understand their course material and how to navigate college life. But one of the key things STEPP helped me see is that learning is a dynamic experience.” 

The programme is provided with no limits on a student’s chosen subject major, and has no additional fees. Its mission is simply to provide access to a college education for students who show potential to succeed. 

“Bright and talented students with learning differences risk missing out on the life-enhancing experience of college education,” says Dr Sarah Williams, founder of ECU STEPP and executive director of the Office for Faculty Excellence. “The programme has demonstrated that – with student-focused support from application to graduation – a learning difference need not be a barrier to further education or employment.” 

Oak supports STEPP as part of our Learning Differences Programme (LDP). We believe that together we can build a world in which schools unlock the creativity and power of every young person and equip them to shape more just and equitable communities. We partner with and invest in not-for-profit organisations that improve education for all students, particularly those with learning differences who experience further marginalisation due to racism and poverty. Find out more about the STEPP programme here