HELEN JAMESON Staff member uses her experiences from dealing with her dyslexia to help others find their creative paths to success.
Helen Jameson remembers reading aloud in third grade, struggling to make sense of a jumble of letters that were scrambled before her eyes.
"Just try harder," a retired teacher would say during afterschool tutoring sessions. But the words didn't make sense, no matter how hard she tried.
In 1968, Jameson was diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning disability that manifests itself as a difficulty with reading decoding, reading comprehension, and/or reading fluency. Since this was before the time of accommodations, Jameson and her parents simply chose to have her repeat the third grade.
"I learned what it felt like to be marginalized, to feel foreign, and to know I was competing against the odds," Jameson says, who adds she prefers the term learning differences. "I felt stigmatized and isolated."
Jameson, 50, has taken what she learned from dealing with differences by reaching out to international students and others in her current role as manager of intercultural programs in the University of Iowa Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS) in UI International Programs.
But it didn't happen overnight.
Through sheer determination and creativity, Jameson flourished as a student during her own academic odyssey—even though well-intentioned adults in K–12 education didn't have the specialized training that many educators have today.
Jameson, a Mount Vernon native, attributes much of her success to her mother and grandmother, courageous women who weren't easily deterred.
She also recognizes that she was influenced by her strong connections to Germany. Her mother, who was born and raised in Regensburg, Germany, participated in one of the first nursing exchange programs between the United States and Germany after World War II.
Some of her first memories of being aware of differences stem from her own experiences of visiting her grandparent, aunts, and uncles in Germany. Her first trip was when she was 3 years old; Jameson has since traveled to Germany more than 20 times.
"The childhood summer trips were a wonderful escape from the challenges and frustrations I faced in the classroom," Jameson says. "My experiences in Germany also made me unique in mostly positive ways, and I took pride in that."
Jameson recalls a story shared by her mother that demonstrates the importance of cross-cultural communication. Her mother was working at a hospital as a nurse, and one of her patients was near death. She was left in charge, and one piece of advice she was given was to do whatever the patient wanted to make her comfortable.
Jameson's mother asked the patient what she wanted, and the woman replied through parched lips, "Dr. Pepper." Jameson's mother dutifully went to the main desk and over the loudspeaker, started paging "Dr. Pepper," not realizing the woman had wanted a soft drink instead of a physician.
"These little stories showed me how cross-cultural misunderstandings happen," Jameson says. "They also showed me how to find humor in those differences."
When Jameson first left home to attend college, she said it was very liberating because she felt she could start over without people knowing about her learning disability.
"It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life because I felt like, all of a sudden, the scarlet D for dyslexia was no longer known in my new environment," Jameson says. "I was determined to keep it a secret."
Jameson really came to terms with her learning disability while attending graduate school in her 30s in the UI College of Education. She needed additional time to take her GREs and went through counseling to integrate learning disabilities into her identity.
"That was the first time I asked for accommodations and needed to tell professors," Jameson says, who has received two master's degrees.
In her OISS role, where she has worked since 2001, Jameson has had the opportunity to work with students from all over the world, as well as work with others to transform the campus environment, making it a welcoming one for international students.
Jameson has been so successful, in fact, that she was honored by the UI Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity with the first ever Individual Diversity Practitioner Catalyst Award.
She is especially proud of a program she launched called Building Our Global Community, a series of workshops designed to help UI faculty and staff develop the skills and knowledge to effectively work with international students.
Additionally, she collaborated with others to develop the Bridging Domestic and Global Diversity Program, which she now leads. This cutting-edge program helps underrepresented students learn about one another and become more effective leaders.
She also recently made a bold move by "coming out as dyslexic" in a feature article on the UI Office of Student Disability Services home page. Jameson wants others with learning disabilities to know that they're not alone, they will be successful, and there are many pathways to successful and exciting futures.
"One thing that made it hard for me when I was young is that I didn't have role models with learning disabilities that I was aware of," Jameson says. "Coming out was a risk—would it frame the way people perceived me and the work I do? I wondered if it would impact my career opportunities."
She has no regrets.
"I was absolutely thrilled," Jameson says. "I had so many loving, supportive, and respectful e-mails after that. At that moment, I knew I was part of the UI community. I now feel like I really belong here and am accepted for who I am."
story by Lois J. Gray; photo by Tom Jorgensen
July 6, 2010