One of USFSM’s newest students is unique in more ways than one. Rylie VanOrsdol is a 15-year-old junior, who transferred this fall with 61 credits from State College of Florida. Double majoring in Psychology and Criminology, she has dreams of becoming a criminal profiler in a major city. “When I was five I asked my mom if she would promise to babysit my kids while I was on mission with the CIA,” joked VanOrsdol. “I always knew criminal psychology was the field for me.”
In addition to her incredible academic achievements, VanOrsdol has something else that sets her apart. Synesthesia. For many, senses are experienced separately and individually. You hear what you hear and you taste what you taste. But for some, senses overlap and blend together: defining the neurological phenomenon of synesthesia.
VanOrsdol has 18 forms of synesthesia, which is extremely rare since most people with this disorder only have a couple forms. Two of the most important forms she exhibits are mirror touch synesthesia and object personification. She can feel things when they happen to others and she can also identify with objects, animate or inanimate. VanOrsdol can actually taste color, hear color in music or everyday life and see names in colors. She can smell sensations such as sharp, soft, cold, hot, fuzzy, tingly and more. She can also associate gender and personalities with everyday objects. When she observes someone being touched, she experiences that as if it were happening to her. “It is difficult for me to visually see someone being punched or kissed because I feel that too,” said VanOrsdol.
VanOrsdol also enjoys music and writing poetry because of her heightened sensibilities. Art provides an escape when she needs one, and an outlet for blocking out uncomfortable situations. “Sometimes I get too much stimuli and poetry or music helps me calm myself,” said VanOrsdol.
While synesthesia makes VanOrsdol’s life an unpredictable jumble of sensory experiences, she also sees it as an asset that furthers her academic abilities, by giving her more ways to remember information and think about things. “I believe it gives me an exceptional memory,” she said.
VanOrsdol has been warned by professionals that she has chosen a very difficult field to break into. “But that won’t stop me from trying,” she said. “I believe these things alone will certainly help me in identifying criminal behavior or guilt. It’s almost like having a 6th, 7th or 8th sense.”
In ninth grade, VanOrsdol exited high school and began full time dual-enrollment classes at SCF with a GPA of 3.7. Even though her age was seen as a limitation by some peers, she still managed to succeed and feels right at home at USFSM. “I have encountered all positivity here.”
When it came time to find the right college, VanOrsdol always knew she wanted to attend USF and turned down offers from other schools. USFSM’s location and programs fit her individual needs. Dr. Su Senapati, a USFSM English instructor and faculty coordinator, invited VanOrsdol to work in the tutoring center, making her the youngest tutor in the USFSM program.
“I got interested in Rylie because I had heard of synesthesia and was just fascinated when I met her,” said Senapati. “From talking with Rylie I found out she is very good in Math and asked her to fill out a form since I am always trying to recruit good students.”
VanOrsdol plans to attend USF Tampa for graduate school at the ripe old age of 17, but until then will continue to experience all USFSM has to offer. “I am extremely happy with my decision to come here,” said VanOrsdol. “I cannot picture myself anywhere else.”