The classroom can be a daunting place for anyone with a learning difference. School can leave students feeling stupid, misunderstood and like they’ll never amount to anything due to their disability.

Keene State College alumnus and winner of the 2017 KSC Alumni Achievement Award Marcus Soutra is living proof that even with a learning difference, anything is possible.

Photo contributed by Rachel Carey

Photo contributed by Rachel Carey

Soutra was awarded the KSC Alumni Achievement Award for his work at Eye to Eye, a national organization dedicated to helping people who are diagnosed with learning differences.

The KSC Alumni Achievement award is “Given to one whose professional achievement in his chosen field brings honor to Keene State College,” which according to KSC Professor Stephen Bigaj and Director of Disability Services at KSC Jane Warner, Soutra undoubtedly does.

According to the Eye to Eye website, Soutra was diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) when he was young. The stigma of his learning difference followed him throughout his childhood.

After high school, Soutra came to KSC specifically for KSC’s secondary education program. He said he knew he had a strength for working with young people through his work with the Boy Scouts and working as a camp counselor.

Soutra said when he first arrived at KSC, he struggled with the transition to college life. He eventually found Warner, who was “a huge asset.”

Photo contributed by Rachel Carey

Photo contributed by Rachel Carey

Soutra is a big supporter of learning difference advocacy. While he was a student teacher, he told his students about his dyslexia and ADHD. He said his students, especially those with learning differences, responded positively.

They were willing to ask for help and were being bullied less.

During Soutra’s junior year, he stumbled upon the seminar that would shape his professional career. The seminar was given by Bigaj, and the topic was working with students with disabilities.

The seminar talked about secondary education and what teachers need to do to nurture higher aspirations in students with learning differences.

“For some reason, whatever I said really hit home with him and we just started connecting,” Bigaj said.

Soutra said the presentation really spoke to his core values and he wanted to learn more. “It exposed me to new thinking and I agreed on the strategies. It helped me understand how I learned,” Soutra said.

Soutra then started working with Bigaj, who mentored him throughout the remainder of his college career.

Bigaj founded an Eye to Eye chapter at KSC in the early 2000s with Warner. The program provided mentoring to children with dyslexia and ADHD from college kids with the same learning differences. Bigaj suggested Soutra get connected with the program.

“He took the opportunity and just ran with it,” Bigaj said.

“He ended up getting connected really assertively,” Bigaj said, and by his senior year, Soutra was leading the KSC chapter. He said they even wrote a grant together to get funding to keep the chapter running.

Bigaj said since Soutra was elected as head of the KSC chapter of Eye to Eye he got to go to an intensive training at Brown University on how to run a chapter.

There, he met David Flink, who worked at the Admissions Office at Brown University and founded Eye to Eye.

After Soutra graduated from KSC in 2006, he applied for a job at Eye to Eye, where he got the job and started working with Flink.

Soutra became Eye to Eye’s very first hire, both he and Flink have spent the past 10 years building up the organization.

They started with only the two of them working out of an apartment in Brooklyn, New York, and have continuously scaled up their model.

Soutra said they’ve expanded to 20 full-time employees and two national offices, one in New York City and the other in San Francisco. The organization operates in 22 states, has 90,000 hours of community service and works with around 900 mentors.

Soutra is concerned with the status of his original Eye to Eye chapter, the one here at KSC. He said he heard it’s having a rough semester and that it needs more mentors.

He said it’s a big concern of his to teach mentoring skills and learning strategies to young people.

Warner had nothing but good things to say about Soutra. “He’s someone that Keene State should be very proud of,” she said.

According to Eye to Eye’s website, its current mission “is to improve the life of every person with a learning disability. We fulfill our mission by supporting and growing a network of youth mentoring programs run by and for those with learning differences, and by organizing advocates to support the full inclusion of people with learning disabilities and ADHD in all aspects of society.”

If Eye to Eye’s message speaks to you, Soutra said he’s always looking to hire KSC graduates.

KSC Director for Engagement of Alumni and Constituents Sara Barrett, was unavailable to comment on the award and the award process.

If you wish to get involved in KSC’s chapter of Eye to Eye, please visit Jane Warner or Lisa David in the Office of Disability Services, located in the Elliot Center.

Alex Fleming can be contacted at afleming@kscequinox.com