When you find out that Lauren Richert has ADHD, you might pity her. But that only lasts about five minutes before it turns into a kind of envy. You quickly see that she enjoys an active, outdoorsy life and was an outstanding student, graduating last May with high honors in the International Rescue and Relief program.

The reason she did well in college, in spite of ADHD, may be revealed in research that she completed as part of her honors thesis. While ADHD students generally show a drop in their grade point average compared to typical students, she found that in Union’s IRR program, they do not.

Richert, who is from Olympia, Washington, was drawn to Union’s IRR program by the promise of hands-on learning. Even as a child she loved active learning. “My mom would always do science projects with us,” she remembered. “We would take baking soda and vinegar and watch an explosion happen in the sink. Or make rock candies with sugar water and a string.”

She always did well in school and never suspected she had ADHD. “I just thought I had a ton of energy and I was super social,” recalled Richert. “I don’t know that everyone else perceived it in such a positive way, but that’s how I felt — which was great for my self-esteem.” 

During her freshman year in high school, a serious concussion sent her to Seattle Children’s Hospital. Doctors reviewing her tests told her, “By the way, you have ADHD.” 

That explains a lot, thought Richert. “I think the first time I ever tried medication for ADHD, I sat down and did my homework in a quarter of the time. I was like, ‘Is this how easy it is for everyone else?’” Her diagnosis prompted a years-long fascination with ADHD and last year it led to her honors project at Union. She wanted to explore the effect of experiential or hands-on learning on students with ADHD. Her IRR major included a great deal of experiential learning, including training exercises in the Colorado wilderness, and a semester of medical and public service in Malawi. Some classes, like the EMT course, included both lectures and hands-on learning. She decided to make IRR alumni the subjects of her study.

A rich community

With the help of Malcolm Russell, director of the honors program, she began an ambitious survey that involved every student who finished the IRR program since it began in 2006. She approached graduates and current seniors to ask them to take a test for ADHD, take an assessment of learning styles, answer questions about their educational experience and share their college grades. It was a big ask. But the IRR alumni came through. 

“I got a 51 percent response rate!” enthused Richert. “Which is crazy! Apparently, it is larger than any other honors research project at Union. I think that’s a testament to how strong our IRR family is.”

As she processed the results, she found that the IRR program seemed to attract ADHD people like herself. “In a normal college population, between two to eight percent of students have ADHD,” she observed. In Union’s IRR program, they make up 16 percent of a typical class. 

But the bombshell dropped when she analyzed the grades of the students. Multiple studies have shown that college students with ADHD fall below typical students by one-quarter to one-half of a letter grade. Richert found that in Union’s IRR program there was no difference in grades at all. Students with ADHD performed as well as their neurotypical peers.

Richert suggests that the results show that “these experiential classes are somehow helping students do well in other classes.”

“I think one of the reasons that they succeed is that, when we’re in the summer program or overseas, people are enmeshed in community. You have no choice but to feel the love and support of everyone around you. 

“The literature says that people with ADHD excel when they have a strong perception of external support. When students feel like their faculty members and family members and friends really support them and encourage them—that’s a huge indicator of success,” she stated. 

ADHD has “disorder” in its name, but Richert sees it differently.  “It’s like having a superpower,” she said. “Everyone’s brain works differently. And it’s just about figuring out how your brain works and then leaning into that. I read somewhere that ADHD people are 300 percent more likely to start their own business.” 

When you’re pitying the poor person with ADHD, they may not be poor. They may be the richest person on the block. 

“I think that with ADHD people,” said Richert. “It’s just trying to find the place that you thrive the best.” For Richert and many others, the place they thrived the best was Union.

Kim Peckham is the communication strategy director for Union College.