Technology clicks for neurodivergent grad

Recent Grand Canyon University graduate Samantha Vousden's neurodiversity means she relates to people differently. But it also helped her click with her major, applied technology. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

Samantha Vousden didn’t know how to explain how she felt. Then she found the perfect words:

“Oh! You know those things kids have when they put the shapes in the box? You’ve got the triangle one?” she said, then paused. “But I’m the square; I can’t go in there.”

It was how the Grand Canyon University applied technology major and recent graduate felt for as long as she could remember.

“Ever since I was younger, I’ve always had a very difficult time with social interactions and how I understood society and the world around me,” said Vousden, who celebrated her accomplishment at the first of three GCU winter Commencement ceremonies on Friday.

It was during her junior year of high school that a therapist said the words “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” after a screening. And although she hasn’t taken the full assessment for autism, Vousden says, she seems to be a peg that fits that hole, too.

Samantha Vousden and her team's capstone project was Combat Wombat, an extension that scans to see how safe links in emails might be.

“I was like, really? … But for me, when I started to understand how it impacted me was my freshman year of college, and that was, in a way, a bit of an identity crisis for me because I’m realizing all of these things about myself.”

But at last she had an explanation for why she didn’t deal with the world like everyone else.

That neurodivergence might make her different, but it also has made her exceptional.

When Vousden started her college journey at GCU, it wasn’t in the major that took her to the Commencement stage. In that other major, she felt, again, that she was among triangles, and she was the square.

Then she found her way back to technology.

Her father was a programmer at IBM: “He kind of encouraged my interest in technology,” she said.

GCU was the only nearby college – she wasn’t ready to move far from the familiarity of her north Phoenix home and family – that accepted the 12 college credits she earned in her high school information technology program.

That was a huge factor in Vousden’s decision to go to GCU.

But changing majors meant throwing herself into unfamiliar surroundings. Luckily, she didn’t feel disoriented for too long.

Feeling like a square among triangles?

“With technology, I haven’t felt that so much,” she said, relating to the world in the same way many of her fellow technology majors do.

Samantha Vousden graduated with her applied technology degree in 3 1/2 years. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

And then there were teachers like IT associate professor Glenda Dilts.

“After spending a semester with her, I just started feeling very comfortable around her and kind of how she approaches topics, and when I talk to her personally … she has a really kind heart,” Vousden said.

Dilts and her other professors received a list of accommodations for Vousden at the beginning of the semester that have made all the difference. They have helped her find success at GCU.

After not hearing the positive feedback she needed in school, and after not finding the right fit in her first major, “She discovered tech, and she has thrived,” said Dilts.

Vousden has no problem talking about her neurodivergence.

“One of the biggest things in how it impacts me is the way that I relate to people and the way I relate to concepts, and those, obviously affect how I go about the world,” she said.

Vousden gets attached to things over people, she said – ask her about her art and Squishmallow collection – and is sometimes misconstrued in her social interactions, which has “always kind of been a challenge for me in terms of how I feel about myself.”

Glenda Dilts

For Vousden, the connections she has made with likeminded classmates and faculty really have been one of the keys to her success.

“I like the logic of it,” said Vousden of applied technology.

She explained that IT is more oriented toward business, such as help desk and support, whereas applied technology is more focused on the technology itself. Students in the latter major learn basic engineering principles and other technical skills to support industry in that way.

Vousden’s capstone project, which she presented alongside her three teammates at the recent Technology Capstone Showcase, is called Combat Wombat. It is a Google Chrome extension for scanning the safety of links in emails. Once you input the link, the extension scans it and tells you how safe that link might be.

“So the idea of deterring people from clicking on phishing scams,” she said.

Her contributions included the front-end portion of the project, so the website and graphic design.

“I love art,” said Vousden, who is spending her free time teaching herself web design, admitting she has too many interests.

Despite switching majors, Vousden still managed to graduate from GCU a semester early, completing her degree in 3 ½ years, in part because GCU accepted her technology credits from high school.

She has found her passion – one of them, at least – and has flourished. She also hasn’t let her neurodivergence hold her back, said Dilts.

“She’s an amazing woman,” Dilts said. “She will do well.”

GCU Manager of Internal Communications Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.

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Commencement slideshows: Morning Afternoon Evening

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