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Parker Lehnen graduated in the spring 2021 semester with a bachelor's degree in applied communication. Photo by Ben Krain.
Parker Lehnen graduated in the spring 2021 semester with a bachelor's degree in applied communication. Photo by Ben Krain.

Parker Lehnen, a native of Van Buren, Arkansas, graduated this semester with a bachelor’s degree in applied communication. He eventually wants to work in higher education so he can advocate for students with disabilities. He also aspires to speak at conferences on Autism awareness. 

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m adopted, and I have two sisters who were adopted as well. I’ve lived in Van Buren all of my life. My family owns and operates Paul’s Bakery which has been in the family for over 65 years. It’s a tourist attraction in Arkansas. Tennis is one of my passions. I have a USTA intermediate ranking and play every day. I have over 13 years of experience on the courts.

I have a passion to become a better person. Right now, I’m reading “Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman. In this book, the author emphasizes that emotional intelligence is as important as IQ for achieving success in one’s personal and professional life. I am also looking for the next project in my search on autism.

You were diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at 10 years old and were told you wouldn’t lead a normal life. What was that like and how did you overcome it?

This was so hard for my mother. When the doctor told me I wouldn’t live a normal life, it was like putting handcuffs on me. They might as well have said I would never be successful. My mother, psychologists, and counselors were committed to helping me.

Unfortunately, I was the weird kid in high school and the target of bullying. People with disabilities are an easy target for bullies. I’ve learned how to hold my own now, and address bullies with communication instead of confrontation. I want to inspire others with disabilities to stand up for themselves because they are “perfectly imperfect.”

Why did you choose UA Little Rock?

I considered going to UA Fayetteville, but UA Little Rock spoke out to me because of the diversity of central Arkansas. Little Rock has allowed me to expand my horizons, and I love the variety of cultures, food, and things to do. There are more interesting things to do in Little Rock than in northwest Arkansas. Central Arkansas is my home away from home.

Why did you switch your major from business to applied communication?

At first, I wanted to major in business with an emphasis on human resources. This interested me because my family owns and operates a business. However, I later realized that human resources just was not the right fit for me. 

Then I took Professor Cheryl Johnston’s Intro to Communication class. This changed everything! It influenced my decision to change my major to Applied Communication, and it changed my life. I feel like I’m a better person and communicator because I have Asperger’s. I never knew that my autism would make me an amazing speaker.

What is your advice for people with autism?

My advice is to talk with your parents. Talk to them about your goals and write them down. Reach out to your high school counselor and to college faculty. I always had conversations with my teachers either in person, email, or Facetime. Volunteer in organizations to help your communication skills. Communication skills are the foundation of almost everything. Autism is something that should never hinder your success. You should treat it like a fashion statement and rock it!

Tell us about some of your favorite courses.

Abnormal psychology, the study of psychological behaviors, helped me understand more about autism. I also enjoyed a class called persuasive presentations. This teaches you how to persuade an audience with a thesis statement. My presentation was on why Daylight Savings Time should be abolished. There’s lots of research to support this. Think about it. Losing an hour of sleep is bad and affects your health. 

Who were some of your mentors?

Regina Wade-Carter, UA Little Rock’s chief of police, saved my life. I was having thoughts of suicide and had to go to the hospital to get a psychological evaluation. When I got back, Regina and Captain Aaron Birmingham checked on me often. Regina treated me like one of her children, and it motivated me to get better. Former Vice Provost and Dean of Students Dr. Brad Patterson has also been an incredible influence for me. Dr. April Chatham-Carter has been amazing as well along with all professors and staff of the Department of Applied Communication.

You mentioned that you would like to work in higher education. What do you want to do? 

I would like to work in student affairs so I can inspire students with disabilities to see that they have a place on campus. I’d like to encourage student organizations to include students with disabilities. Students need to know that we’re all in this world together, and we can’t be judgemental. I’m interested in diversity in communication, gender equity, disabilities, and cultures of the world. And I would love to be the chancellor or vice chancellor of UA Little Rock one day.

Do you have any advice for future students?

Make sure you major in something you are interested in. If it is something you enjoy, you’ll do well at it. Motivation comes from your skills. Use that to drive your success in college. We need to inspire future generations with positive communication. I’m a diamond in the rough, and I’d like to show people how successful I’ve been at UA Little Rock. Afterall, Arkansas is the diamond state!  

This graduate profile was compiled by Toni Boyer.