The fall of 2010 marked a very important turning point in my life. On a warm and muggy September morning that year, I set foot in a college classroom for the first time. I was immediately overwhelmed by nearly every aspect of the experience; nonetheless, determination and perseverance gave me the drive to continue pushing forward.
It’s hard to believe, but nearly four years have passed since my college career began; in less than one year it will all come to an end. The journey has been loaded with experiences I will never forget. Aside from making lifelong friends and enjoying fun times, challenges such as choosing courses, transferring from one school to another, living in a dorm, and completing assignments have been incredibly eye opening.
Attending college has enabled me to explore numerous subject areas and has helped considerably in narrowing down my career path. Most notably, the experience has taught me valuable lessons about advocacy and independence. These skills are essential for anyone with a disability who enters the college environment. A few key events that occurred along the way demonstrate the manner in which I learned to develop these skills.
Shortly before I began my tenure as a student at MassBay Community College, I contacted the school’s Disability Resources Coordinator to introduce myself and discuss the manner in which the office might be able to provide assistance. I set up a meeting with him and arrived at the school the following day with my mother. The coordinator greeted us and ushered us into his office; he proceeded to ask questions related to my specific needs. Though my mother tried to respond, she was interrupted almost immediately by the coordinator: “I’m asking Tyler, not you.” What at first seemed to be a rude and intimidating gesture turned out to be an introduction of sorts to an important principle of college and work life: you as an individual are in complete control of the process. Faculty and staff are only interested in what the student has to say.
As I developed more of a relationship with the coordinator, I grew to better understand his reasoning for being dismissive of my mother. This inaugural meeting was the first of many events that taught me the importance of advocacy and recognizing my specific needs. Non-existent in college is the IEP and the team of one’s parents and professionals that accompany a student through high school. Instead, all decisions are ultimately made by the student.
While it seemed as though I was completely on my own, I quickly realized the multitude of resources that were within reach. Though he appeared harsh at first, the disability coordinator at MassBay supported me along the way. As I grew more comfortable, I let him know of struggles I was experiencing in and outside of the classroom. I soon became part of a support group of fellow students with disabilities. Along with speaking to groups of faculty and students about disability-related issues, we met on a near-weekly basis to discuss specific problems and conflicts we were experiencing in the classroom. On several occasions, the group helped me as I dealt with difficult professors or course material. Notably, they encouraged me to seek out the resources of the Academic Achievement Center when it became apparent that I would be unable to succeed in my intro microeconomics course. I was incredibly lucky to have an amazing tutor who worked with me to complete every assignment and help me pass every exam. Originally horrified at the prospect of controlling my own education, I was soon overwhelmed with support from everyone.
Increased confidence ultimately led me to graduate from MassBay with an Associate Degree in General Studies in May 2013 – it was at this point that I decided to take my journey to the next level. After some searching, I stumbled upon the communication arts program at Framingham State University. Classes related to media studies and public speaking, a student-operated radio station, and on-campus housing led me to apply to the university that summer. Last fall, my experience in the dorm began. Despite some apprehension and plenty of days when I felt like giving up and leaving, obtaining a dorm was the best decision I ever made. So many wonderful fellow students made me feel welcome in a novel environment. Everyone was willing to help with projects great and small, from grabbing dinner in the cafeteria to proofreading a paper. Though my dorm room was at times quiet and lonely, common areas abounded with opportunities to socialize with fellow students, many of whom remain close friends. Utilizing strategies I developed at MassBay and with the help of college resources, I was able to complete higher level course assignments with great success. Advocacy skills proved especially useful this past semester as I dealt with a particularly difficult professor. Though I routinely felt uncomfortable in the class, talking through challenges with fellow students and university staff led me to effectively deal with the challenges I was experiencing. I am extremely proud of my accomplishments this past year – I am eager for another fun-filled year to begin!
Entering college can be an incredibly daunting experience – this is especially true for students with disabilities. Nonetheless, feelings of anxiety and fear quickly vanish. If you are about to enter college in the fall, now is a perfect time to begin developing the strategies that will lead to success. Get to know yourself—consider all of the attributes and traits that make you unique. This will aid you when speaking to your school’s disability coordinator and your professors. It is crucial that you meet with your school’s disability resource staff as early as possible in the preparation process; moreover, meeting with professors ahead of time can be extremely helpful as well. Finally, you are never alone; academic institutions are packed with fellow students and support centers that are available every step of the way. Using your resources and knowing about yourself will allow for the college experience to be memorable and fun!