NEW YORK – A cluttered mind, organization and depression were challenges that followed Ryan Lynch to Marquette University as a freshman last fall, not to mention the task of navigating life in a new environment in the throes of a pandemic.

“I was in a really bad spot (first semester),” Lynch said.

Eventually, Lynch, who’s on the autism spectrum, went to the university for help. The disability services office then redirected him to the university’s “On Your Marq” program that helps students on the autism spectrum navigate campus life through peer mentors, graduate coaches and a welcoming social environment (and a therapy dog named Raven, too).

Lynch joined. And after a better second semester academically, he said he is ready to hit the ground running this fall with the program’s support behind him.

“It really is the biggest weight lifted off my shoulders I think ever,” Lynch told Crux. “Don’t get me wrong, I still have academic struggles and worry everyday about them, but I know with On Your Marq there I have at least a light at the end of the tunnel to help me through those and overcome them and for the longest time I didn’t have that.”

Entering its third year, On Your Marq was created as an interdisciplinary approach to help university students on the autism spectrum navigate college life. In the program’s first year it served five students. The number has since tripled to 16 for the upcoming academic year.

Each student in the program has a peer mentor and graduate coach. Emily Raclaw, the program’s director, described the peer mentor as sort of a social navigator for the students. The graduate coach, she said, checks-in with the students about their mental/emotional health and advises them academically.

The program also holds a seminar each semester that utilizes the university’s occupational therapy department, rehab counseling program and graduate staff to talk with the students about different social and employment skills. Marquette professors, the housing department, career services and the writing center are others it works with.

“Pretty much everywhere on campus our students have someone they can go to or someone they can talk to that’s going to understand them and not treat them like they’re weird because they’re different because they’re not,” Raclaw told Crux. “They’re different, not less.”

Lynch, who studies journalism at Marquette, primarily used the program for academic and mental health support. He met with his peer mentor every Wednesday and Friday to discuss his week, his classes and assignments. And then he’d meet with his graduate coach who checked on his general well-being.

“I went from not being in a good spot mentally to actually finding out that there were people who could help me,” Lynch said.

Other students, like fellow rising sophomore Anne Doepke, benefitted from the communal aspect of the program. A karaoke night on campus and a two-mile walk from campus to Lake Michigan were two program events that stand out from her freshman year. Though, her fondest memories came from spending time in the program’s on-campus social space.

In a conversation with Crux, Doepke recalled one time she was at the space and through random conversations was able to get help on a difficult assignment.

“If I was just by myself in the library or something I definitely know I would have struggled, but when I was around people that I felt I could trust it was just easy to talk to them and they helped me with an assignment that was pretty difficult,” Doepke said.

Raclaw considers the social space – outfitted with couches, a large TV and Nintendo Switch – a place where students can go where “they don’t have to mask,” or hide their symptoms of autism.

Like Lynch, Doepke, who’s working towards an elementary education and psychology double major, is eager for her sophomore year.

“Now that they’ve figured out a little bit more about me and my style of how I do things, what works best for me I definitely feel more confident and even now I’ve just been conversing with (On Your Marq) at least once a day through the summer and they’re still aware about my goals even though I’m not on campus at the moment,” Doepke said.

She hopes to see other universities create similar programs that use a full team to create a tailored experience and help a student on the autism spectrum.

The program will graduate its first student this upcoming academic year, and six more students will graduate with the class of 2022. Raclaw said it’s incredible to see the progress of the program and students.

“A student who started super shy, super reserved, really afraid that they didn’t belong here and now they have an internship at city hall or they’re thinking about studying abroad and they’ve become a leader within their own right in the program,” Raclaw said. “Being able to help the university develop a culture where diversity is embraced has been incredible.”

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg