On the Job
Mitch Nagler, M.A. '06
Making the College Dream a Reality for Students on the Autism Spectrum
Thanks to an explosion in services for kindergarten through 12th grade students who have Asperger syndrome, many more are graduating from high school expecting to attend college. Those who make it to college, however, often struggle, as universities are not mandated to provide support services to students with learning disabilities, such as Asperger syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders.
"College students with Asperger's need programs," said Mitch Nagler, M.A. '06, a member of the first class to graduate from the Gordon F. Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies' mental health counseling master's program and now assistant director of the Adelphi Student Counseling Center and director of the Bridges to Adelphi program. "They got a lot of help in grades K-12 and then in college are left to their own devices."
Bridges to Adelphi is an apt name for a program that enables students who self-disclose with Asperger syndrome or other nonverbal learning disorders to transition from a highly supportive and structured secondary school setting to Adelphi. Bridges to Adelphi encouragingly provides a range of academic, social and vocational support services to about 50 undergraduates. The students in the program work with academic coaches—a team of five graduate students who review course syllabi and help students address challenges, such as prioritization and time management, anxiety, social relations and vocational skills. Another team of learning assistants helps students with academic assignments—in particular, addressing such issues as procrastination and avoidance. As the program's director, Mr. Nagler manages the support staff and interacts with parents, faculty and other staff on the students' behalf.
"I love all of the kids that are in the program, and I love to see them overcome their negative thinking and negative expectations and become successful," Mr. Nagler said of his Bridges to Adelphi experience. "I love problem-solving with them and training the graduate students." He said he feels lucky to find work that he is passionate about. He also enjoys the collegiate atmosphere and said he especially appreciates being at Adelphi, which he said is the most open, warm and accepting campus he has worked at (and he has been at a few).
Before taking a full-time position at Adelphi in December 2011, Mr. Nagler coordinated the Bridges Project at Long Island University—C.W. Post Campus, Manhattanville College, Pace University and Queensboro Community College, as well as the one at Adelphi.
In addition to his Adelphi work, Mr. Nagler has a clinical practice in New York City and Merrick, New York, which provides specialized clinical and educational counseling and support services for individuals with Asperger syndrome and other related conditions.
Psychology is a significant career change for Mr. Nagler, who previously owned and managed a variety of food manufacturing distribution businesses and did a stint in the construction equipment trade. "I really feel fulfilled," Mr. Nagler said of his current career. "I'm sort of in a stage that I could just say I've done my job…and sort of stagnate. Or I could take this time to try to build something and give back to society and the next generation…I'm going to try to build something that will sustain after I leave, and that's a beautiful thing."
Mr. Nagler said that the most difficult aspect of his work is accepting that he can't ensure success for all of his clients. He finds he must adjust his high expectations—or manage his own counter-transference—accordingly.
Mr. Nagler advises students and alumni to: "Figure out what you love to do and then figure out how to make money doing it. It's dreadful going to work every day just to make money." Mr. Nagler followed this counsel when, following 9/11, he abandoned a safe and lucrative career for one that he cared about.
"I was in a graduate psych program after I graduated [with my bachelor's], but I was drafted into a family business," Mr. Nagler said. "And then the business [and following businesses] became very successful. And then my wife and I started having children, and we bought a home, and we got cars...But I always knew that psychology was what I wanted to do." In 2002, he took the plunge and enrolled in a master's program at the Derner Institute. He chose Derner because it was nearby, but, he said, "On the first day of classes, I knew that I was on the right path."
Through a Derner Professor—Matthew Cruger—Mr. Nagler met the director of the Asperger Institute at the NYU Child Study Center. She hired him to work with the children at the center, and Mr. Nagler quickly discovered his passion.
Hard work and careful cultivation of relationships have enabled Mr. Nagler to make a living doing work he loves. He also said that being engaged is key to success in any field. His advice to students and alumni is to, "Pay attention, pay attention, pay attention."