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Emory Oaks program offers navigation and support for autistic students
Students Shangrila Parvin, Thomas Pharr and River Somerville

Students Shangrila Parvin, Thomas Pharr and River Somerville have found community and support through Emory Oaks, something that each of them attest has made a huge impact on their time at Emory.

Finding support — and community — is a major part of going to college and stepping into adulthood. Emory Oaks is working to make that easier for autistic students. 

Emory Oaks, started in 2021, is a support program for students enrolled across Emory. In the program, students with autism have access to a support navigator, who they meet with regularly to build rapport and collaboratively identify goals. 

For Shangrila Parvin, the program has been a key difference between her undergraduate and graduate experiences.

Between the time that Parvin finished her bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and vocal musical performance at Emory College of Arts and Sciences and started the Rollins Executive Master of Public Health program, she was seeking diagnoses and support.

During the first year of her graduate program, she received an ADHD diagnosis and access to medication, and felt much more confident and prepared compared to her undergraduate experience. But even with that support, Parvin felt something else was going on.

“After meeting with a professor, I was referred to several people, one of which was intervention services,” she says. “I wanted to explore the possibility of autism in myself and intervention services referred me to Emory Oaks last year.”

Since then, Parvin says that the program has been pivotal in her academic career.

“I always say that my graduate experience has been so different from my undergraduate experience,” she explains. “In undergrad, I struggled a lot. I tried getting support but wasn’t able to find what I needed. I have felt very well supported at Emory Oaks.”

(l-r) Kelsey Bohlke, Shangrila Parvin, Thomas Pharr, River Somerville and Matt Segall celebrate the end of the academic year after having “journeyed through the university experience together.”

Journeying through the university experience together 

For the vast majority of participants, the support navigator they meet with every 1-2 weeks is Emory Oaks Assistant Director Kelsey Bohlke. 

Bohlke, an Emory alum herself, pursued graduate school at Georgia State University knowing she wanted to support the autistic community. She connected with Oaks Director Matt Segall during her graduate career and has helped shape the program from the very beginning.

Bohlke is the support navigator for roughly 25 students. When she’s not meeting with students, she’s often helping other universities get similar programs off the ground or working with Segall to support Emory faculty, staff and student groups helping to ensure spaces are inclusive.  
Segall says that the best way to explain Emory Oaks is “a support program where autistic students at Emory can come and know they’re getting partnership and collaboration with people who are knowledgeable and empathetic and will create a safe space."

“We journey through the university experience together,” says Segall, assistant professor and Education and Transition Services program director at the Emory Autism Center. 

It’s not that Emory was short on resources — as Segall notes, the university community offers academic supports, social and health supports and more — but those supports often go underutilized by students. For some, the anxiety of meeting new people, or the stress of coordinating across multiple services, also creates a barrier to entry.

“We position ourselves as folks who are going to make all of that easier,” Segall says. “We get to know students as well as we can and as quickly as we can, and we prioritize creating a safe and open space.”

Both Segall and Bohlke have backgrounds as mental health clinicians and have worked with the autistic community for the majority of their careers. They’re able to connect students directly with other relevant spaces around campus.

“We would be so much less without our campus partners,” says Bohlke. “I acknowledge that I can’t actually do it all, so it’s been really helpful and important to have friends across the university to help connect students with.” 

Thomas Pharr, a junior double majoring in political science and Spanish, has found great value in the connections the Oaks office has.

It’s really nice to have support networks specifically trained in autism,” Pharr says. “Other mental health services on campus exist but Oaks is more all-encompassing, including with career stuff, and can help coordinate with other offices.” 

Of the students Bohlke sees, nearly half have worked with the Pathways Center, which provides resources and experiences to Emory students and alumni to help them reach their full potential, focusing on career and professional development, undergraduate research programs, national scholarships and fellowships and more. Counseling and Psychological Services (often referred to as CAPS), student health psychiatry services and undergraduate education and advising are also widely used services.

Cross-campus collaboration also flows in the other direction and can help students connect with the Oaks program — which is how first-year student River Somerville discovered Oaks before setting foot on Emory’s campus last fall. 

When Somerville, who is interested in studying environmental science and history, registered with the Department of Accessibility Services (DAS), a staff member also referred them to Emory Oaks, which ultimately helped ease their transition to college. 

“Autism spectrum disorder isn’t something you necessarily acquire,” they say. “I’ve lived with it my whole life, but I didn’t have a name for it. Meeting with Kelsey helped identify how some of those traits can come into play and how I can get assistance.” 

Pharr points out that Oaks also promotes events sponsored by other campus groups. Those community-building opportunities bolster the regular, 1:1-focused Oaks meetings.

“I’m in the autism advocacy club and there are students who are involved in Oaks and have since joined the club because they found out about it through Oaks’ promotion,” Pharr says.

Meeting students where they are 

Emory Oaks works to meet students where they are — quite literally.

Because Bohlke and Segall are able to meet with students virtually, they also support Oxford College students. Bohlke was an Oxford continuee and says that the Oxford campus and its students remain close to her heart.

And, because the internet knows no bounds, they can support students while studying abroad, too. 

When Pharr studied abroad in Salamanca, Spain, in spring 2023, his experience with Emory Oaks didn’t skip a beat. 

“Because I’ve always met virtually with Kelsey, the content of our meetings didn’t change much whether I was on the Oxford or Atlanta campus, or even abroad,” Pharr says, pointing to the continuity of his experience. “Emory Oaks has been super helpful with transitioning to and during college.” 

In addition to supporting Emory students on both campuses, Emory Oaks works with undergraduate and graduate students alike.

For Parvin, one of the most helpful things was that she was able to start working with Bohlke while pursuing an official autism diagnosis.

“It was helpful to be able to talk about specific things in my life and what I was struggling with, and unravel that to see if it was tied to autism,” Parvin says. “Kelsey would give very practical, actionable tips that I could take in response to different situations that came up week to week. 

“It was nice to have that stability of our weekly meetings, and it was actually one of the first times I felt really understood by someone else.”

But it’s not just the support navigator relationship that makes this program so meaningful to participants. 

“The community of Emory Oaks is another safety net for me,” says Somerville. Although each of their sessions with Bohlke has been online, Somerville has made connections with some of the other students involved in Emory Oaks, both online and in person. They’ve found that support particularly valuable regarding the social pressure to make friends quickly and easily, or when dealing with sensory issues.

“In Oaks, a lot of other people felt similarly so it helped me have a frame of reference on how other autistic students are living on campus. There’s the solidarity of Oaks folks, and Kelsey has always been in my corner when I fall behind or have concerns. And those concerns aren’t always unique to autism, so it’s great that she’s also qualified for general counseling,” Somerville says.

“Kelsey has helped me learn that it’s okay to ask for help and to utilize my support systems,” they say.

Experiences like this are exactly what Segall hopes students will find: a supportive community they can consider their own.

“The progress we’ve made so far is suggestive that a lot of our students have found something safe and affirming that’s getting them closer to community and an authentic experience of belonging,” he says.

Designing a collaborative program

The Emory Oaks program launched in 2021 through a three-year grant from the Administration for Community Living, which included a community advisory board (CAB).

“The CAB includes a lot of autistic voices and that’s really informed how we operate our program and how we’ve grown,” Segall says.

Originally, Segall and Bohlke were seeing students who needed to take a semester off, had a mental health crisis or were grappling with another problem. The entry point for students to Emory Oaks was usually support and repair, rather than prevention.

“So based on that, we built the program around helping people repair. But our autistic self-advocates on the CAB told us to remove all of that, saying, ‘We’re not broken, and you’re not going to get as many people coming to your program if you position yourself as repairing us,’” Segall says. “We easily and quickly reframes around Support Navigation, access to supports and partnership in applying goals, and used the supportive language you see today.”

Another key aspect is the “menu options” approach. As Segall explains, the program includes two non-optional aspects: participants will meet with their support navigator regularly and the two will build a relationship.

“After that, you can choose based on what your goals are and we’ll connect you with those resources, come up with action plans to achieve those goals and monitor progress,” he says.

One thing everyone agrees on? The importance of the program — and the desire to spread the word.

“Having this program has been really helpful,” says Parvin. “Before this, I had tried therapy and other assessments. While those didn’t go very far, Oaks has been incredibly helpful.”

Bohlke echoes that, saying, “This isn’t very tangible or data-oriented, but one of the biggest strengths of Emory Oaks is that it’s a soft place to land. Students can come to me when things did or didn’t go well, and know they have that support no matter what. I think students feel more comfortable in who they are and how they’re going about campus knowing that they have a safe space to come to if it’s needed.”

“Oaks has been one of the greatest supports I’ve had at Emory,” Somerville says. “I am reaping the benefits as we speak.”

All photos credited to Ted Pio Roda.

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