LOPES Academy student graduates to Alumni Relations position

Lindsey Eaton greets a student on the first day of her new job as LOPES Academy Alumni Relations Specialist during the CHSS kickoff event at GCU Arena.

Photos by Ralph Freso

Lindsey Eaton loved her experience at LOPES Academy so much that she went through withdrawals after completing her two-year course last spring.

“My transition after Grand Canyon University was really rough,” Eaton recalled. “I actually was in tears because I missed the program.”

Eaton treasured being part of the first class to complete LOPES Academy, a non-degree program that provides a comprehensive Christian university campus focusing on job skills development for neurodivergent individuals.

Those skills, particularly her passion for writing, her hybrid internship in Lopes’ Athletics and her openness about discussing her autism, provided a fit for the LOPES Academy alumni role that was posted.

“This is a great chance to increase your independence level in areas that you’ve expressed,” Allison Mancinelli Kolanko, Program Manager for LOPES Academy, told Eaton. “How do we juggle working two jobs? There is no better scenario than here (with supports in place).

“This is a great fit here, the type of work you will be doing, because this is your skill set, creating newsletters, communicating with people and having enough flexibility where you ease into that next level. That is a big step. You are able to work at your other job during the week, in addition to working here at GCU, an environment you already are comfortable with."

Lindsey’s duties - as LOPES Academy Alumni Relations Specialist - started Wednesday, Sept. 20. She will work two hours a week with the potential to expand to five hours weekly. The LOPES Academy plans to exchange ideas, as the role will work directly with Alumni Relations staffers to explore tasks that could tailor to her skills and provide opportunity for growth.

Lindsey Eaton (left) talks with Program Director Allison Mancinelli Kolanko on the first day of her new job as LOPES Academy Alumni Relations Specialist.

Setting a template for an alumni calendar, organizing photos and contributing to newsletters are significant tasks, considering what Lindsey experienced two years ago shortly after arriving on the GCU campus.

“I remember this one time I got terribly lost and called my mom,” Eaton said. “I said, ‘help me, help me. I do not know where I am.’ I set a goal to not let that happen again.”

With the help of LOPES Academy staff, Eaton said they collaborated on a scheme in which they used campus landmarks such as Lopes Way to find out how far she was from specific destinations.

“It worked,” Eaton smiled.

So has her leadership and willingness to help others. Eaton heeded Mancinelli Kolanko’s motto of “progress, not perfection.” Eaton was delighted to see LOPES Academy alums Jaden Lowery and Kyle Bragelman earn part-time jobs at Lope Shop (they each worked 36 hours during Welcome Week), but she wanted to do more than performing administrative duties such as making photocopies, shredding papers, and distributing lost and found items to students attending Christ Lutheran School.

Eaton’s advocacy at Christ Lutheran paid off as she initiated a new autism connection program and instructed 30 students.

“We’re getting more students with autism, and I have autism, too,” said Eaton, who will continue her duties while working two hours at GCU.  “I wanted to teach them more so they know how to work with me and how to address a situation if they're missing something.”

As part of her internship duties with the GCU Athletics, Eaton used to check in and monitor student-athletes at study hall. Occasionally, a scanner would fizzle, but Eaton would not hesitate to speak up and resolve the problem.

She also would update the rosters in the team’s database but would ask for help if the type size was too small.

Lindsey Eaton on the first day of her new job as LOPES Academy Alumni Relations Specialist.

“Being somebody with autism, I would get flustered if something wouldn’t work,” Eaton said. “‘Well, you need to check with someone.’ It is helpful to know who to check with.”

Eaton’s knack for advocating for herself and other autistic students should serve her well in her new role. She raised neurodiverse awareness during a chat with student-athletes with the full support and tutoring of Mancinelli Kolanko.

Meanwhile, GCU’s trust in helping Eaton supervise study hall fortified her confidence.

“It was so fun, it forced me to be on my game, literally,” Eaton said with a smile.

The internship put the finishing touches on a memorable two years at GCU for Eaton, who admitted she was nervous when she initially enrolled following her time at First Place Transition Academy and initially wanted to do something other than enroll in another program for neurodiverse people.

“All of a sudden, I fell in love with the LOPES Academy,” recalled Eaton, who struck an immediate bond with Mancinelli Kolanko. “I loved everything GCU had to offer. Just being emersed in the campus, being part of a big campus family, going to chapel, (serving) the internship and doing autism training and everything about it.

“And when it came time for it to be over, that’s what the hardest piece was. I was missing that. I loved everything about it, and my buddy Jayden (Orr) was also amazing with me. We still keep in touch.”

But the tears of sadness after completing the LOPES Academy program dried up long ago and are replaced by a sustainable smile following her return to GCU.

“It’s a Christian environment, and it’s so positive,” said Eaton, who loves hearing the connection that many have expressed to her about alums and family members who teach at GCU and have remained there for several years.

“I just love everybody knows everybody who knows everybody.”

Senior Writer Mark Gonzales can be reached at [email protected]

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